Opening sentence: “When the streets are at their darkest and quietest, a girl settles at a small desk in the cellar of a dollmaker’s shop.”
First, let’s talk about the exquisite cover. I saw on Twitter that to create this the publishers actually got a real bell jar, had the book title painted onto it and filled it with illustrations. It was then photographed to create what you see below. I mean, how amazing is that? As well as being so striking it is also the perfect visual representation of the story.
And what is the story? Well… We are effortlessly transported to Victorian London, Prince Albert’s ambitious project The Great Exhibition, a celebration of culture and industry, is being curated and built and Elizabeth Macneal wonderfully evokes the smells, sounds and excitement of London at this time. We meet Iris and her twin sister Rose who work in a doll shop, making the clothes for and painting the faces onto the dolls. Iris catches the eye of two men – for very different reasons. Louis Frost is an artist and wants Iris to be his muse, she is more than a little intrigued as being an artist herself is her dream. But can she leave her sister and leave her job to enter a world she knows nothing about with a man she has just met? Silas Reed is the other person who has Iris in his sights. He is a taxidermist who is exhibiting one of his pieces in The Great Exhibition and wants to befriend Iris. He lacks, shall we say, social airs and graces, so tries to attract Iris’ attention in less than conventional ways, some of which take a very sinister turn.
This is a dark yet often beautiful story that weaves the gritty reality of Victorian London with art, love and – crucially – brilliantly crafted characters that are both genuine and loving and deeply disturbing. (In that sense it actually reminded me of another great book I read years ago, The Collector by John Fowles, also a tale of passion and obsession.) I would just have liked a final chapter about Silas as I was left with a few questions about his story… but overall this is an impressively strong debut book. Elizabeth Neal’s tone and style is the perfect blend of sharp and lyrical – she creates vivid characters and such realistic settings, so I’ll definitely be popping her on my author watch list. I highly recommend you keep an eye out for The Doll Factory when it’s published in May 2019!
/ Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC.
/ Published by Picador 2nd May 2019
/ 336 pages
/ Rating: 4/5