The Doll Factory

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Title:The Doll Factory

Writer:Elizabeth Macneal

Publishing House:Picador

Date of Publication:May 2nd 2019

Rating:5 stars

”When the streets are at the darkest and quitest, a girl settles at a small desk in the cellar of a dollmaker’s shop. A bald china head sits in front of her and watches her with a vacant stare. She squeezes red and white watercolours on to an oyster shell, sucks the end of her brush, and adjusts the looking glass before her. The candle hisses. The girl narrows her eyes at the black paper.”

London, 1850. As the great metropolis is preparing for an illustrious event, three characters discover their lives are unexpectedly, irrevocably interconnected. A young woman, gifted with talent and bravery, tries to escape a life of tyranny and follow her vocation. A painter, member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, searches for inspiration and a place in the Great Exhibition. A shady collector, who lives in his own world of make-believe, searches for the next item to be displayed. In the streets of a city where darkness and light take part in a daily battle, a story of obsession and darkness unfolds…

…this exquisite novel has entered my personal Historical Fiction pantheon. Because it is perfect.

Elizabeth Macneal uses the theme of Art to comment on how perceptions and make-believe can alter a person’s life. Within the London society, the belly of the beast, young women are forced either to bow to their families’ notion of identity or rebel and end up in a lice-infested brother or the poorhouse. No one cares whether they are gifted with extraordinary talent, no one listens to their wishes. In a society that vilifies the poor and worships the corrupted nobility, appearance and a problematic idea of respectability is everything. Iris has to rebel against the family and decides to follow the changing era that hesitantly begins to make a difference. The universe of Art isn’t free of its own prejudices and stereotypes but, if nothing else, it provides a kind of freedom that women are not allowed in the ”respectable” part of a society that cannot face the facts.

When a novel is set in London, the city becomes a character. I will use the phrase ”a Dickens of our times” because Macneal’s pen raises London out of the pages and the capital comes alive in front of our eyes. Silas’s devilish presence echoes the dangers that can be found in any era, in any city. The psychopath, the evil, the threat that appears when you least expect it. Lies, insecurity, battling against the world of men, everything is necessary when you find the chance to escape a life dictated by others.

”I am not some ladies.”

Iris is the heart of this striking story, a character of her time without becoming a caricature of the boring pseudo-feisty heroine that is only a period copycat of the same-old, same-old novels. Her spirit and her honesty, her determination and resilience are characteristics of a protagonist you can root for. Unless you are narrow-minded in which case this book is not for you…

There is definite darkness in the novel, a Gothic mystery, a horror story that requires a strong mind. I adore the concept of taxidermy, it fascinates me to no end and Macneal uses it to perfection to create a powerful atmosphere that turns you into an observer who has to witness everything, unable to react, to warn or rescue. You just stand there, in awe, hoping. Hope is never far away, even in the corners of a dark, dirty, violent city that gives and takes, nourishes and kills.

The Doll Factory is one of those novels that I call ”brave reads”. It is purely Victorian, an accurate and acute study of the era and the themes of womanhood and self-preservation, of freedom and strength. Yes, it is violent. Of course it is, the era requires it, life itself requires it and the finest stories are not created out of silly happiness, pink clouds and cliches. The stories that endure are born out of the human soul and its incredible, inexplicable depth. Humans suffer, animals suffer in ”real” life. Why should books be any different when they are the mirrors of societies over the centuries?

If you are a brave reader who demands complex and confident stories, The Doll Factory is one of the finest Historical Fiction novels you’ll ever read.

”Dead, dead, all dead.”


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