Before I start , quick question would writing in loud, shouty capitals
“THIS BOOK IS AMAZING, I COMMAND YOU TO BUY IT!”,
cut it as a book review?
No? Thought not. Well then we have a problem because I am actually a bit – well, very – scared to review this book. I enjoyed it so much that I am worried that I can’t do a good enough job in conveying how beautiful and complex it is. I just don’t know if I can do it justice, I feel I might some how break the spell it wove around me by trying to write about it.
But, on the other hand, I can’t ignore it. It is one of the most amazing books that I have read this year. So I can’t be a ‘proper’ book blogger if I don’t write about, so here goes.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is set in Victorian London. It is 1850 and the Great Exhibition is on the verge of opening. Iris and her twin Rose are working in a Doll Makers shop. Discontented with her lot Iris dreams of being an artist. A chance meeting leads her to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost. She becomes his model, his muse and a developing painter in her own right, changing her life completely. But in escaping her life in the doll shop Iris incurs the disapproval of her parents and her sister. Cut loose from her family ties Iris is drawn further into the artist’s world, becoming Louis lover and caught up in his desires for a a place in the Academy Exhibition.
Silas Reed is watching Iris. Introduced to her by street urchin Albie, he is convinced that she is the girl he needs to make his life complete. A loner, working as a taxidermist, dreaming of creating his own exhibition, he is waiting to make Iris his own.
From the beginning of the novel Macneal’s sense of place and time is impeccable and vivid. There is a vibrancy within the writing which speaks to the reader, drawing them into the streets of London. From the outset that tradition and mainstay of Victorian literature is present; the duality of the city. The ever present fact that grime and art, wealth and poverty exist together, and that neither is ever far from the other. Moreover one feeds and enables the other. For example Albie, brings his dead rotting animals to Silas; who in turn stuffs them and sells them on to Louis and his Brotherhood. Nothing in this city is what it seems, appearances are most definitely deceptive.
And once you have picked up on this motif of duality you find it expertly woven everywhere. It’s in the characters of Iris and her twin Rose. One outward looking, seeing beyond her own limitations and reaching for freedom; the other constrained by her physical scars and trapped in the doll shop, resentful of her sisters choices.
Albie, with his poverty but keen emotional intelligence is the nemesis of Silas. Silas, brooding, resentful and increasingly menacing. We seem him develop from a vaguely ridiculous man with harmless delusions of grandeur to a threatening presence. It is Albie, watchful and wise beyond his years who sees the danger.
But what of Louis, where does he fit into this web of duality? Louis and his brotherhood are devoted to capturing life in art, making a true and accurate presentation of what is before them. Like Silas’ taxidermy, their art is striving to preserve an image for posterity. Life in Victorian London is fragile, easily taken away. Be it a stuffed dog, an Academy painting or a doll modelled on a dead child, everyone is in a race to preserve precious life.
Everyone except Silas. Silas has slipped beyond presentation and duplication and into the sinister realms of possession. The possession of life and all that entails. In Silas we see the ultimate duality, just how easily love and affection can fester and tip into the dark realms of obsession and hate. Compare the twisted longing of Silas to the open enabling affection of Louis and we are right back in the arms of duality. Genuis stuff!
Genuis rides again by making the backdrop to this novel the Great Exhibition. Throughout the novel the motif of display is present. Louis and his Brethren dream of the Academy, Silas is looking to create a museum of curios, Iris wants to exhibit her work , the Doll shop and it’s wares; all build a picture of art imitating life but also they force us to question how real they actually are. London itself could be seen as one big exhibition, where nothing is quite as it seems.
For every major character in this novel is an outcast, an anomaly, working on the edges of society. Albie; an urchin, ducking and diving. Silas; social awkward, ridiculed and alone. Rose; disfigured by illness and Iris; born with physical imperfection. Louis and his artistic circle; all working outside the bounds of accepted norms and techniques. It is a cast of misfits. Or curiosities in an exhibition.
This plot is a living museum, where the reader can peek in and see how the characters make the best of the hand they are dealt. Do they turn their differences into strengths, striding forwards like Albie, Louis and Iris to make their mark on the world? Or do they let past misfortunes turn inwards and fester, leaving them bitter, constrained and resentful like Rose and Silas? How do they achieve freedom and how do they use the freedom they gain?
I adored this novel. I loved it’s characters, watching them grow either with confidence and bravado or quiet, creaking menace. I loved the setting, the creeping poverty in juxtaposition with bright lights of London. I loved the plot, infused with humour, pathos and terror. I loved it all.
Thank you Elizabeth Macneal. How long before I am allowed to reread?