I have to admit to being kinda vexed by this book. I’d normally shy away from a book set in the mid 1800s… not being a fan of historical fiction ‘n’ all. But something about the book must have appealed for me to have requested it and the blurb does set the scene for a creepy but intriguing tale.
The Doll Factory
by Elizabeth Macneal
Published by Picador
on May 2nd 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction, General Fiction
ISBN: 1529002397, 9781529002416
London. 1850. The Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and among the crowd watching the spectacle two people meet. For Iris, an aspiring artist, it is the encounter of a moment – forgotten seconds later, but for Silas, a collector entranced by the strange and beautiful, that meeting marks a new beginning.
When Iris is asked to model for pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly her world begins to expand, to become a place of art and love.
But Silas has only thought of one thing since their meeting, and his obsession is darkening . . .
I was surprised to find myself interested in Iris and her tale from the outset. She and her sister Rose work for a doll-maker. Mrs Salter is a hard taskmaster and not particularly pleasant. The sisters paint dolls – often as gifts for young girls, or… more macabrely in their image after they’ve passed.
Macneal also introduces us early on to Silas who’s a taxidermist. I think. He seems to collect bones as well as study and stuff animals. Interestingly I didn’t mind Silas when we met him. Macneal puts us in his head and we understand his passion for his work.
It’s only later – through the eyes of others we learn he’s well… weird.
The two stories are initially linked via a young boy – who finds dead animals for Silas and stitches dolls’ clothing for Mrs Salter. Albie appears throughout the book and Macneal offers us a sense of his courage and kindness, despite everything he’s been through.
It’s actually via Silas we meet artists – the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In fact it’s Silas who suggests Iris would be the perfect model for Louis who’s embarking on a new painting. For someone who’s led a very sheltered life Iris shows an amazing amount of bravado when she counters Louis’s generous offer for her to model for him, requesting art lessons as well as the wage he’s offering.
Of course – given the time and the reputation afforded to artist’s models – Iris’s sister and parents are horrified when she leaves the shop to start modelling.
Iris is attracted to Louis but he seems surprisingly diffident. He is however, encouraging of her artwork and Iris soon thrives under his tutelage.
And this is where the story started to fall down a little for me. It’s almost as if elements of the plot were introduced but not progressed or explored fully, including Iris’s artwork (and themes: that she should perhaps paint under a man’s name to be more accepted etc).
By now we’ve realised Silas is actually fairly sociopathic and possibly responsible for a number of deaths. I wondered though if perhaps he had multiple personality / dissociative identity disorder as he seems surprised on occasions when he’s accused of certain acts. I probably would have liked his tendencies to have been explored a little more to understand the ‘why’ as his character almost devolves into a caricature of a madman of sorts.
We readers know Silas is targeting Iris and lost in his imagined relationship with her but for some time it seems he’ll be thwarted in any attempt to harm her as Iris has Albie and Louis watching over her.
And then things change. I was taken aback by a couple of twists Macneal adds in though ultimately left a tad confused. I ‘think’ I know how it ended, but I can’t be exactly sure.
I definitely didn’t feel a sense of closure on closing the book. And (as an aside) I don’t entirely understand the relevance of the title, other than the fact Iris and her sister worked at a store making dolls.
So, although I’ve read other very positive reviews, this was a mixed bag for me. I was initially surprised by how much I enjoyed the unfolding tale of Iris and Louis and his friends and the art-world (and that of literary and culture) of the mid 1800s but then it felt as if it rushed to the conclusion and I was left a little confused and unsatisfied.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal was published in Australia by Pan Macmillan and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.