My rating: 4 stars
Characters are an essential part of a compelling book. Although the ones featured in The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal feel slightly artificial at first, they become fully fledged and engrossing as the story progresses. Together with an absorbing plot and a vivid writing style, they help turn this debut novel about freedom, independence and the difference between love and obsession into a gripping read, which also portrays a hypocritical and judgemental society.
The year is 1850, and the location is London. Twin sisters Iris and Rose work at Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium. Iris’s job is to paint the dolls. What she really wants to do in life, though, is to paint proper pictures, instead of china eyes and cheeks. She longs to become an artist. Despite both her family and the society in general seeing it as immoral, she is secretly trying to paint a picture of herself.
By chance, Iris meets Silas at the place where the Great Exhibition is to be held. He collects curiosities and dedicates himself to taxidermy. The way in which he performs his task is described in a chilling tone. Almost instantly, Silas becomes obsessed with Iris. She reminds him of Flick, a close friend he had when he was 15 years old. There’s a convincing eeriness surrounding him.
It’s thanks to Silas that Iris meets Louis Frost, a painter who is a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He is looking for a new model for his paintings. In order to compensate him for a failed taxidermy work, Silas recommends him Iris. He regrets mentioning her immediately. But not soon enough. And, some time after, Iris agrees to be Louis’s model, as long as he teaches her how to paint.
“She would like to paint with the colours she sees before her, to portray the world like a stained-glass window.”
The characters slowly, but surely, become fully fledged. At first, there’s something unreal about them. That sensation of artificiality may stem from the fact that the initial chapters are quite short and, therefore, the perspectives they are told from keep changing. One moment we are following one character, and shortly after the focus is on another. As the story progresses, however, the characters truly live off the page and reveal great complexity.
Iris has a deep inner desire for freedom and shows great tenacity. Her relationship with her sister is complex and notable. They love each other, but there is some resentment about both present and past events. When Iris visits the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood factory for the first time, she feels truly real. Her interactions with Louis give a new life to the novel, and it becomes more engrossing and relatable. Her feelings and emotions are more tangible than before. Some of the most absorbing parts of the story are when they enjoy each other’s company.
Soon after they meet, Iris becomes smitten by Louis. His feelings remain a mystery for a while, though. He appears to like her, but we can’t be completely sure. Interestingly, he seems to be intentionally refraining from letting his feelings be known. When we know more about his past, the way in which he is portrayed and acts makes perfect sense.
Throughout the novel, Elizabeth Macneal raises interesting questions about the patriarchal approach that women are supposed to consider the unwanted attention of men flattering. Some men feel like they are automatically entitled to women’s attention merely because they think they are worthy of it.
London is visually depicted, creating a convincing sense of place. The descriptions of sounds, lights and the characters’ surroundings are realistic. They usually match the mood of specific plot points, leading to immersive ambiances.
“It is all noise, confusion and pressing crowds. A vast fountain spurts glittering jets of water into the sky, and a sea of women thrust through the turnstiles, grasp one another in a kind of ecstasy, and heap cloaks and bags over their male chaperones.”
The Doll Factory has a cast of characters that I soon won’t forget. Most often than not, it feels like we are observing their movements, thanks to an overall detailed narration. After a promising debut, I’ll surely read Macneal’s future work.