Title: The Doll Factory
Author: Elizabeth Macneal
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication date: 2nd May 2019
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
“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 . . .”
The Doll Factory takes place in 1850s London and narrates the touching story of Iris and Rose, two sisters stuck in a never ending cycle of misery. Written with flair and confidence, the beginning of the story sucked me in immediately and I was transported to a London so different to the one I know and eager to immerse myself in the dark and gothic setting.
Iris hopes for more than the shabby setting and poor working conditions of painting dolls and dreams of a faraway life filled with opportunities. The possibility of escape surfaces when she is asked to model for pre-Raphaelite painter Louis Foster who she bargains to model for in exchange for art lessons. This engrossing beginning outlined an array of possibilities for Iris who soon found herself detached from her sister and entered a world completely different to the one she knew. I found her journey through London while getting to know Louis a marvellous adventure and truly connected with her character.
Unfortunately towards the halfway mark certain events linked to Silas, a taxidermist infatuated with Iris, were enough to put me off and I skimmed through a large chunk of the book. Although the writing was sharp and articulate, the descriptions involving killing and stuffing animals were too distasteful and not to my liking. The connection between Silas and Iris was also too constrained and not a story arc I appreciated.
I loved the gothic and mysterious setting but was not expecting such a dark and twisted turn of events. The characterisation was powerful and the pace seemed right but by skipping through several parts I lost the momentum and this ultimately shaped the book to be an average read for me despite the strong start. The Doll Factory has the potential to charm many readers with its setting and storytelling and I would recommend it to fans of period features and lots of drama but it could be a difficult read for readers who don’t digest gory details well.