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 . . .
First of all, huge thanks to Camilla Elworthy for sending me a beautiful proof copy!
There has been some fuss lately about debut authors, and the kind of marketing they are getting, to the detriment of established authors. I agree that debut authors are often praised like they’re the best thing since sliced bread, and I have to admit that always makes me feel a bit wary and perhaps even a little wayward: you know what, I’ll make up my own mind about how great this debut is thank you very much! However, every once in a while a debut deserves all the praise it’s getting and then some, and that is definitely the case with The Doll Factory. If I hadn’t been told this is a debut, I would never have guessed. This is written so flawlessly, so effortlessly, so masterfully. The prose is simply gorgeous. The words flow, easily but lushly, rich in colourful, evocative detail.
The Doll Factory is the most outstanding historical fiction, even if you’re not a history buff or art-obsessed, I’m not, and yet this novel stole my heart. Obviously the historical aspect is a hugely important one, especially in terms of characters and setting. However, there was so much more to be found between the pages of The Doll Factory. It felt to me as You (Caroline Kepnes) meets The Blue (Nancy Bilyeau).
Why The Blue: because it’s historical fiction obviously, but much more than that. Like Genevieve in The Blue, Iris is quite rebellious for the day and age in which she dwells: she knows what she wants, and what she wants is to paint. But women are the models, the supporters of men, not the artists, doesn’t she realise?! She does, she just doesn’t care. She’s feisty, emancipated, stubborn, kickass in her very own way, but sweet and caring too. I loved her! Another element The Doll Factory has in common with The Blue is its educational nature: I learned a lot and I never even noticed because the story was just so entertaining! I like art as much as the next gal, but don’t quiz me on periods and artists, I’m like Jon Snow, I know nothing. Except now I do know a whole lot more than I did before. And it was child’s play!
Why You: Silas reminded me of Joe, plain and simple. He’s obsessed with Iris, and somehow under the delusion that she loves him, even though she barely knows his name. He stalks her, he’s convinced he’s doing right by her, that his kind of love is the real deal. Classic Joe, am I right?! Except Silas is even creepier since he’s a taxidermist. I won’t claim all taxidermists are creepy, but Silas sure is! Know that the profession of taxidermy and the acts it requires are not shied away from.
The Doll Factory is also a love story, not only in the traditional way, although there is some of that too, but also between Iris and her sister Rose. Rose is an excellent supporting character and so is Albie, the little street kid who brings Silas dead animals to stuff and sews little doll clothes to sell to the shop where Iris and Rose work.
Last but not least, The Doll Factory is suspenseful, which took me by surprise. The finale read like a thriller and had me biting my lip and turning the pages as fast as I possibly could.
Elizabeth Macneal states in her letter accompanying the proof copy how she was inspired by Lizzy Siddal on the one hand and collectors of curiosities on the other, and how she crammed all the things that fascinate her in this one book. Yes, the reader feels that fascination, that passion in her words, but no, it never feels like she crammed anything into this book. The storylines fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, not crammed, not forced, but like it was always meant to be. Like the Pre-Raphaelites should have had an actual Iris, like Silas was an actual taxidermist in 1850’s London, like it was always written in the stars that they would meet.
The Doll Factory will satisfy a wide range of readers. Elizabeth Macneal has masterfully painted a picture with lots of different elements and the result has a little something for everyone. A novel that will not be crammed into one little box and as such ticked all my boxes. Highly recommended!
The Doll Factory is out NOW!