Published: 2nd May 2019
Started reading: May 10
Finished reading: May 16
Trigger warnings: Animal cruelty, sexual content
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 . . .
This is a book that was full to the brim with ideas and creativity. Rich in detail and possessing a plot that became increasingly dark and menacing, it is a deep, intensely thoughtful piece of historical fiction. While it certainly had the occasional flaw, the story rarely ceases to be gripping.
The historical setting of Victorian London is fantastically realised, acting as an ideal canvas for a story that also encompasses romance and thriller elements. The world the author creates is highly immersive and made to feel very real, with evocative descriptions throughout that made me feel like I had been transported into the glass jar that adorns the book’s glorious cover.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 was an interesting backdrop to a book that explored the gap between rich and poor very effectively. I liked how the event played such an important role in the story, and how the interactions between a diverse range of characters from different social classes were presented.
The book begins by introducing the three main characters, whose perspectives are all told in the third person present tense. Iris is a young woman who works as a seamstress alongside her sister Rose, when she has a brief but fateful encounter with Silas, a solitary creator and collector of curious objects. Then we have Albie, an impoverished boy who runs errands for both of them, and gets caught right in the middle of the events that follow.
At this stage, there is no real indication of the dark and creepy tale of obsession that follows, as Iris soon earns her long-awaited freedom by meeting charismatic painter Louis Frost. Their relationship quickly develops, and for me this is where some of the writing lacked its usual sophistication, but the way the book switched between multiple POVs meant the plot remained intriguing, even if the story as a whole contains few twists.
Each of the three storylines are really well executed, and bring a major sense of foreboding that left me fascinated by how and when they would overlap. When they do, it does not disappoint, as a plot that begins in a way that seems relatively benign, gradually escalates until it becomes something altogether more sinister and unsettling!
Iris is the main protagonist, and I thought she was well developed. I occasionally found some aspects of her personality quite grating after she meets Louis, but she is still a strong character. I liked how her relationship with Rose and her family was written, as well as her spirit and her generosity towards Albie.
As for Silas, well he has to be one of the most creepy and frankly disturbing characters I have ever read. In the beginning he seems merely unusual, with a wild imagination, but we soon learn that it goes way beyond that. His actions are chilling and calculated, reaching further extremes as the story nears its conclusion. It sometimes makes for an uncomfortable read, with a number of descriptions of animal cruelty.
Early on in the book, I was unsure what to make of Albie, but as I read on I really began to sympathise and connect with him. Louis was another character who brought a lot to the story; he was entertaining and unique and very well written.
Indeed, the majority of the writing is vibrant and dramatic, in a way that really brings out the author’s own style and helps to make all of the characters memorable. It moves along at a fast pace, which does give the book a page-turning quality, however I did find some parts of it rushed, particularly towards the end. The ending itself is in one way fitting, but also too brief and abrupt.
Overall, this was a book that really drew me in, with a wonderfully detailed setting and an effervescent style that often jumps from the page. I had some issues with the structure and the direction of the plot, but it still made for a highly absorbing read.
Elizabeth Macneal read English Literature at Oxford University, but only became an author after completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2017. The Doll Factory is her debut novel.
Born in Edinburgh but now living in East London, Macneal combines writing with an interest in pottery, and works from a studio in her garden. I look forward to seeing her at an event in Bath this Sunday (26th May)!
A gripping, eye-catching book that enveloped me in its pages. I had some issues, but otherwise I can see why it has proved popular with so many readers.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐