Review: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
This is yet another historical fiction thriller: the main action takes place in 1851 London, where Iris Whittle begins modeling for a (fictional) member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Louis Frost, a group that was dedicated to bringing more lightness and surreality to painting in Victorian London and were prominently exhibiting through the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. Concurrently, Iris is the object of a curiosity and antique shop owner, Silas's, ever-growing obsession, and he stalks her and her employer and lover Louis. We discover Iris's emancipation as she grows into a painter in her own right and her relationship with Louis both through her eyes and the eyes of her stalker, as well as Iris's twin sister Rose.
This book was definitely a slow burn, but it ended up being really enjoyable for me to read. Elizabeth Macneal certainly grows into her story - it's as if she becomes more comfortable with her characters as they, too, grow and evolve. Louis and Rose, the two ancillary characters to Iris's central viewpoint, change and grow through the novel in a way I found very compelling and believable, even as I felt that Iris remained somewhat static - she started off as someone very strong-willed and independent, with a clear sense of who she is and what she wants, and she is only reinforced in that position as the novel progresses. The big thing Iris gains as a character is confidence in herself and a sense of comfort in asking for what she wants. You also get the sense at the end of the novel that Iris has also lost some of her idealism, and she's got a better idea of what she can reasonably expect and when settling would be the most practical and practicable solution.
By far, though, the most interesting aspect of this novel is the story itself. The overarching premise, that of Iris wanting to step outside the bounds of being seen as an 'object' and becoming a painter in her own right, is judiciously juxtaposed between the story of Silas's obsession with her and her work as Louis's model and her role as, eventually, his lover. The different ways that Louis and Silas watch Iris, and demand her time and her attention and her energy, are fascinating to observe separately and in comparison of each other. It was chilling, seeing how fine the line is between Louis's attention for Iris and Silas's obsession is - how easily, if the context of Louis and Iris's interactions had been even slightly different, even Louis's love for her would have been made so much more sinister. Silas himself was also an interesting, carefully written villain: he is incredibly creepy (his hobby is killing puppies and skinning them to make articulated skeletons, for fuck's sake) and he is, after all, a serial killer (although the way Macneal teases that revelation out slowly, chapter by chapter, never quite revealing it till the end even as you get glimpses of his psychotic nature that are all the more quietly terrifying for just being glimpses); but he is also a character that inspires bone-deep pity. His backstory is of some pretty horrific abuse and a devastatingly lonely childhood, and Macneal is careful to balance out the way he is portrayed so that when you start thinking he is completely irredeemable (which he is), you are counterbalanced by the compassion that that backstory pricks in you.
The characterization in this novel is also quite well done. As mentioned a bit above, Rose and Louis have some good, solid character development, and Iris is a vivid, well-drawn character that stands out quite forcibly from the page, without ever being caught in the 'twenty-first century woman in a Victorian setting' trap that so many period writers find themselves caught in. Silas, as mentioned, is both an unusual and a well-drawn villain. And I especially liked the street urchin Albie, and his outlook on life and the relationship he had with his sister. The way his character ended was a legitimate gut punch, and even though he was a plot device his personality was never thin enough and always well fleshed-out enough to make the plot device work without grating.
I do have a couple of gripes, though: the dialogue is clunky - as is often the case with contemporary writers trying to mimic the lilt of period novels and speech (I'm sure I've made this point before, it's just so often true). The moments of interpersonal conflict, such as the arguments between Louis and Iris and Iris and her sister, were a bit unbelievable and always resolved too quickly for the stakes to feel appropriately high, especially in the context of the real peril Iris is in for the majority of the novel. The relationship between the sisters especially struck a weird note in the novel - I could never quite figure out what the point of Rose was, as it seemed that the sisters' relationship was such a weird, up-and-down, never-quite-made-sense push-and-pull throughout the entire book. It seems as if Elizabeth Macneal had a plot in mind for Rose but then ran out of time and page count to fully flesh it out, always making it appear as if that relationship - and its concurrently bizarre, never-quite-made-sense or fully-explained tension - was a bit of an afterthought to the main story.
All told, though, this was a good, creepy Victorian thriller with some solid plotting, some excellent characters, and a great sense of a chilling, oppressive atmosphere. I especially loved the flashes of the art world at the time that the author drops in there, without ever making the male painters Iris is learning from the unnecessary center of anybody's attention. If you can look past the clunky dialogue, I can highly recommend this read.