Employed at a doll factory, Iris spends her days yearning for a better life. While her twin sister Rose appears satisfied with the drudgery that marks their days, Iris secretly harbours a desire to become a painter.
One day, she gets invited to model for an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a society of unconventional painters. Given the chance to increase her earning potential and hone her talents, Iris sets forth on a path that is unfamiliar and possibly dangerous.
Read if you like: historical fiction, books set in Victorian London, a vivid writing style, gothic novels, dark & unsettling themes
I cannot believe how long I’ve had my eye on The Doll Factory before I finally picked it up. It was everything and more than what I’d hoped for.
Elizabeth Macneal’s writing is descriptive to the point of being irresistibly vivid. That’s not to say you’ll find just pages full of descriptions. But the words she uses and the way she moulds the language to her vision are nothing short of spellbinding.
I love that the novel is set in 1850s London. From the architecture to the economic landscape of the city, the author imbues the essence of that time period into her story.
Iris’ characterisation is easily one of the highlights of the novel. She symbolises the passion many of us carry, the constant awareness that we are meant for something bigger.
Her character development isn’t a drastic one because she has been a go-getter from the beginning. So you will not see a drastic personality or mindset change. But it is the circumstances that she is put through and her reactions that form a more conclusive picture of who Iris is.
I would not recommend this book if you are easily upset by difficult topics. There is gore, death, sexual assault, animal cruelty, stalking, and kidnapping that is mentioned in varying degrees of detail.
I was disturbed a couple of times by the way these themes are depicted. But not to the extent that I’d need a moment before I could continue reading.
The Doll Factory has a slow-medium pace with chapters alternating between the perspectives of Iris, Louis (the PRB artist), and Silas (a taxidermist who is obsessed with Iris).
The way the author portrays Silas and the gradual unravelling of his mental stability is at once chilling and fascinating.
With antagonistic characters, it is important to understand their backstory for them to have a substantial role in the book. And I’m glad that the author does go into Silas’ past to talk about instances that have affected him.
Although I would’ve preferred for Iris and Louis’ friendship to have remained so, I can see why she gets smitten with him.
He comes from a different world than her and has been the only one who has actively supported her. All of that can make for a convincing argument, but based on their conversations, I’m not sure how they would fare in a committed romantic relationship.
Throughout the book, one of the themes that is intricately woven into the writing is the wealth disparity in society. I would even say that this is a hard-hitting novel because Macneal doesn’t shy away from displaying the harsh truths that her characters confront daily.
With Silas’ taxidermy and the presence of the doll factory, these imageries go on to add to the vibe of the novel.
I am extremely impressed by The Doll Factory. After finishing the book, I immediately looked up the author’s other works. If you like what you’ve read so far about the novel, I’d highly recommend it! This book deserves a screen adaptation.
Would this be one of my top 10 reads of 2023? Maybe. Let’s see what the rest of my reading year looks like.
But one thing is for sure I will read anything Elizabeth Macneal writes.