*I received a free ARC of this book, with thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is the intoxicating story of a young woman who aspires to be an artist, and the man whose obsession may destroy her world for ever.
London. 1850. The greatest spectacle the city has ever seen is being built in Hyde Park, and among the crowd watching 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…
The Doll Factory is completely captivating.
We follow three main characters (Iris, Silas and Albie) as they navigate their own personal struggles, and their lives brush up against each other like the kiss of a butterfly’s wings before converging as disastrously and disturbingly as congenitally conjoined puppies.
Iris is living an enclosed life in the shadow of her sister’s disfiguring illness and her parent’s strict moral strictures. She longs for the freedom to be herself and to express herself, creatively and sexually. Silas is trapped by his inability to understand social interactions and his affinity for dead things which make such interactions few and far between. His life is cold, and dark with loneliness… and perhaps something more sinister. Albie is a hard-grafting, enterprising street urchin who simply wants safety and financial security for himself and his sister, and some new teeth. If you need it, he will try his best to get it… unless the cost is his own conscience.
Here freedom and love, joy and creativity live alongside jealousy, loneliness, fear and anger in an intricate pattern of symmetries. The tension builds slowly as the author carefully laces her story tighter and tighter, to the point where the reader may forget to breathe.
But this story is not suitable for those prone to swooning. Skin is bared and bones exposed, but the author also digs unafraid into the guts, rot and excrement which also form part of the human condition. Balanced with the lofty intellectual and creative pursuits of the Great Exhibition and the Pre-Raphaelites’ ambitions, the colours of human life (the light and dark, bright and dull) are painted large and true on this fictional canvas.
Highly recommended for fans of atmospheric, Victorian, Gothic literature, and also fans of well-written suspense that explores the dichotomy of the rational, spiritual, base animal that is humanity.
He sees a child dart forward and snatch a red handkerchief from a lady’s purse. He peers closer, recognizing that scruff of pale hair. The familiarity is a balm, a reminder that he is not alone in this roiling mass of industry. Silas smiles, and calls out, ‘Albie!’
But the boy does not hear him. And then Silas understands: he has been caught. A woman’s hand is on his wrist, the handkerchief a limp flag in his fist, and Silas slips on a piece of turf in his haste to hurry over, readying himself to play Albie’s rescuer, to beg her not to notify the authorities – but then he sees that Albie is laughing.
Silas looks at the woman more closely. She is as tall as a man and has her red hair tidied into a long plait. She is – Flick? Grown up, womanly. But it cannot be. This woman has a slight stoop on her left side.
It is as if a bell has been rung in an old house. Silas has felt the tremor of the wire as it runs deeper into the building, through walls and floors. He stands transfixed, watching as the vibrations set a series of smaller bells ringing.
He could not say what it means.
– Elizabeth Macneal, The Doll Factory
The Doll Factory is available on Amazon right now!