#BookReview The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal @picadorbooks

The Doll FactoryAbout the Book

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 . . .

Format: Hardcover (336 pages)   Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 2nd May 2019 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The Doll Factory, the author’s debut novel, is set in Victorian London and provides a vivid picture of life in the period.  Whilst those in the higher echelons of society throng the glittering halls of the Great Exhibition or the Royal Academy, the poor wander ‘narrow and fetid’ passages, dark alleys with ‘green slime on their walls’ and inhabit the crowded rookeries where poverty-stricken young men and women support themselves through petty crime or prostitution. Those lucky enough to find employment, like Iris and her sister Rose, work long hours in thrall to the whims of their employers.

It’s no wonder Iris longs to escape her current occupation painting the faces of dolls and fulfil her artistic potential. When the opportunity comes it seems to her ‘as if her life was charcoal before, and now it takes on the vividness of oil paint’.  However, Iris’s new found freedom comes with consequences and also a degree of trepidation. ‘Her life was a cell before but now the freedom terrifies her. There are times when she longs for the enclosed familiarity of her previous life, because this expansive liberty seems like it will engulf her.’  As it turns out, Iris will soon realise just how precious liberty is.

The Doll Factory is a story of obsession and desire in various forms. Artist Louis Frost, and the other members of the self-styled Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, have a desire to challenge current artistic conventions. Street urchin Albie wishes to free his sister from a life of prostitution, one in which, obscenely, dying girls are the most treasured by clients. Albie also has rather specific ambitions of his own.  Meanwhile Silas, the owner of a shop filled with curiosities of a rather gruesome nature, harbours an obsession of a more sinister nature. The more the reader learns about his past the more menacing and disturbing his actions become.

There are some melodramatic scenes as events move towards their climax with the book’s ending inviting the reader to reach their own conclusion about the fate of the main characters. Part mystery, part love story, The Doll Factory positively oozes period atmosphere and will appeal to readers who like a good helping of the Gothic in their historical fiction… or those who desire to make the aquaintance of a wombat called Guinevere.

In three words: Atmospheric, chilling, dark

Try something similar: Crimson & Bone by Marina Fiorato

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Elizabeth MacnealAbout the Author

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Noel Award 2018. (Photo/bio: Goodreads)

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