The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

The Doll Factory is a compelling and well-written gothic affair, with the following ensemble of main characters:

  • Silas, an obsessive epidermist and owner of a Curiosity Shop, who is entranced by all things strange and beautiful.
  • Two twins, Iris and Rose, apprentices in a doll shop. Iris has a twisted collarbone which she is incredibly self-conscious about. Rose, who used to be carefree in her beauty, has been left deformed following an illness, leaving her resentful towards her sister.
  • Albie, a young street urchin, who lives in a brothel with his older sister. He has only one remaining tooth and is saving up for a full set.
  • Louis, a pre-Raphaelite artist from a wealthy family, looking for a new model for his latest painting.

Iris is the heart of the story, an aspiring artist, trapped within the role Victorian society has set for her:

She will never escape. She will never be free. She is destined to eke out this pitiful life, to suffer the slaps and insults of Mrs Salter, to endure her sister’s jealousy, until, at last, some scrawny boy fattens her with child after child, and she spends her days winching laundry through a mangle, swilling rotten offal into Sunday pies, all while tending to infants mewling with scarlatina and influenza and goodness knows what else, until she contracts it too.

It takes just one chance encounter with Iris, one that she barely even registers, for Silas to develop a dark obsession, which fuels the book’s drama. He watches from the sidelines as Iris embarks on a love affair with Louis, with only Albie seeing the danger that lies ahead.

Some more macabre parts of Victorian society are centred throughout the story. For example, the tradition of creating dolls with the likeness of dead children, which fits in with an underlying theme of collection and display.

There are also multiple scenes of intense animal cruelty, starting at page one. It was extremely difficult for me to stick with these, but the author writes them adeptly and they solidify Silas as a truly frightening figure.

Albie was a joy to read and I feel like he deserved a better ending to his arc, which made it difficult for me to leave this book feeling fully satisfied. In addition, even though some scenes were intentionally deeply disturbing, they were tough to get through. That said, The Doll Factory is a resolutely compelling read and left me interesting in reading more from Macneal.

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