The Doll Factory (2019) – Elizabeth Macneal

Title: The Doll Factory
Author: Elizabeth Macneal
Date published: 2019
Publisher: Picador/Pan Macmillan
Star rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:I was sent this copy by Pan Macmillan South Africa in exchange for an honest review

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”

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The year is 1850 and the city is London. We are introduced to twin sisters Iris and Rose Whittle who work in a doll emporium sewing miniature clothes and painting the lips and eyes onto porcelain heads. They sit all day hunched over their intricate work and spend their nights sharing a bed upstairs in the home of the emporium’s owner. They eat dripping on bread at lunchtime and sometimes the owner gives their arms a pinch just to keep them in line. Rose, who once had flawless skin and suitors knocking at her parent’s front door, is now badly scarred from an illness that left her insecure and happy to live this life in the dark. Iris, on the other hand dreams of a career painting and wants desperately to venture out into the light. The sisters with their identical long red tresses are often made aware of how grateful they should be for this job, as it is not uncommon for unmarried women of a certain class to end up working in the brothels that border the winding alleyways and shadowy streets.

Iris is the star of this show. She is the one who befriends Albie, the young toothless street urchin who dreams of buying a new set of ivory teeth for himself, and has the noble intention of making enough money to get his sister out of working at one of the filthiest brothels that side of London. Albie spends his days doing odd jobs for the various traders, including the gathering of ‘specimens’ for a man called Silas Reed who own a grimy little shop called Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New. The shop is filled with the oddities one would usually find in B-grade horror films. Jars of pickled animals and the skulls of the dead, as well as an array of grotesque taxidermy attempts fill the dark little shop that is frequented by artisans and collectors of the macabre. Silas’ menacing presence in the novel is the sole reason for the constant tension one feels as you indulge in the character’s lives as they either frolic in luxurious abandon or wallow in their own manic attempt at survival.

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In the London of Macneal’s imagination the art world of sculptors, painters and critics are creating their own version of beauty to counteract the grittiness of a city that isn’t particularly appealing. In this world of excess we meet Louis Frost who is a member of an elitist artist group who call themselves the elusive PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood). This small group of young artists have veered away from conventional methods and are not revered by their elder counterparts as they consistently flout the laws of conventional art.  In more ways than one Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel is even more extraordinary because she is unafraid to make 1850’s London just as much of a main character in this creepy Gothic thriller than the people who inhabit this tale of obsession, passion, delusion and love. If it weren’t for the author’s brilliant descriptions of a London so grimy and full of desperation, I fear that the novel would not hit the right tender nerve that it seems to do so brilliantly.

As we follow the contrasting lives of Iris, Albie, Silas and Louis in a city of filth and dreams, certain aspects become impossible to ignore. For example the seemingly casual cruelty that permeates the novel is often difficult to swallow. Macneal takes great care with her descriptions of Silas’ ‘experiments’ and procedures, and animals are very often treated as mere objects. At one point Iris confronts Silas about this:

"Why do you do it? Do what? Collect- kill these creatures, take away their lives? She does not understand. He doesn't end their lives but preserves their memory; totems that will last all of time, pelts which would have greyed then rotted in alleys"

The novel is not only about cruelty and beauty and obsession, but also about survival, and women in particular are treated as a commodity in this London of a bygone age. Some are slaves, some are prostitutes and when Iris becomes Louis’ muse, those around her start considering her a little bit of both. Her own painting aspirations are not even considered, and it is only once she becomes the object of Louis’ imagination and creativity that she is noticed.

All in all this novel is truly a magnificent example of a Gothic thriller with all the creepiness mixed in with the insipid smells and sights of a city teeming on the brink of an artistic revolution. Its heart-wrenching chapters will keep you permanently on edge as you await the toe-curling, blood-curdling conclusion.

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