London. 1850. On a crowded street, the dollmaker Iris Whittle meets the artist Louis Frost. Louis is a painter who yearns to have his work displayed in the Royal Academy, and he is desperate for Iris to be his model. Iris agrees, on the condition that he teaches her to paint.
Dreaming of freedom, Iris throws herself into a new life of art and love, unaware that she has caught the eye of a second man. Silas Reed is a curiosity collector, enchanted by the strange and beautiful. After seeing Iris at the site of the Great Exhibition he finds he cannot forget her.
As Iris’s world expands, Silas’s obsession grows. And it is only a matter of time before they meet again . . .
I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, so when I got the chance to pick a book for a readalong with some of my fab @The_WriteReads crew on Twitter, I snuck this one in. It is, by the way, the perfect book for group discussion – the only problem we had is that there was possibly TOO much to say about it! I’m delighted that The Motherload Book Club on Facebook will also be discussing The Doll Factory this month, so I get another chance to chat about this wonderfully immersive, delightfully dark book!
The setting is fantastic. 1850s London comes alive in the novel’s pages, aided by the vivid present tense and the carefully crafted details which build up a world around the reader, so that you really feel as if you are there. The level of sensory detail lends a heady atmosphere of total immersion that serves the story incredibly well. The novel ranges widely, taking in all walks of life, from shopkeepers to artists to street urchins, transporting us from galleries to alleyways, and there is a wonderful sense of the author taking the reader by the hand and running at full pelt through a city caught in a moment in time, delightedly showing off both its glamour and its seedy underbelly. I loved the scenes at the Great Exhibition, and the contrast between that huge collaborative grand endeavour and Silas’ gloomy shop, with its dark cellar beneath it.
Silas is a complex, sinister character whose growing obsession with Iris drives the novel. Iris herself is equally complicated, and her relationships with the other characters are well-drawn and realistically tangled. I enjoyed watching her escape the confines of her narrow existence in the hope of making a new life for herself, and I liked the way several narrative threads play out at once in the book. It gives the story a depth and a kind of roundness, which takes me back to that feeling of being totally immersed in the world of the novel.
This novel is exactly the sort of historical fiction I enjoy: vividly detailed, atmospheric, and full of unexpected events. I couldn’t finish my review without a shout-out to my two favourite characters, the heroes of our readalong chat: Albie and Guinevere. Read this book to meet them, and for many other reasons. I’m really looking forward to reading more work by this author in the future.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is out now, published by Picador, and is available to purchase here.