There is a mesmerizing, hypnotic quality to The Doll Factory, a debut novel by Elizabeth MacNeal. Iris is an aspiring artist, but there is little chance she can follow her dreams, as she works side by side with her twin sister Rose in a doll factory, painstakingly creating handmade dolls. Iris was born with a broken collarbone that is now permanently twisted, something that has given her an unusual gait and beauty. Rose was once the beauty of the sisters, but after contracting smallpox is disfigured. The twins work side by side every day and sleep at night together, but Iris feels increasingly suffocated by their small lives, and her sister’s jealousy and bitterness.
When Iris meets pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she can’t resist his offer of being his model because he also agrees to give her art lessons. Although her family disowns her, fearing she is now ‘ruined’, she loves the freedom of her new life and learning more about art. Although she misses her sister, there is too much to enjoy in her new life to have second thoughts. Louis and Iris develop a respectful friendship as Iris models for him, and he gives her art lessons.
But unfortunately, Louis is not the only man who is enchanted by Iris’s beauty. Silas is the owner of Silas’s Shop of Curiosities, an odd shop filled with stuffed dead animals and butterflies pinned to boards – and when he spots Iris at The Great Exhibition, he becomes obsessed with her. At first, he seems like a harmless misfit, but as the novel progresses, the reader understands that Silas is a very dangerous man, and his obsession is darkening.
The Doll Factory is a literary novel that is very carefully written and constructed. The Doll Factory hooks from the opening pages, is by turns beautiful and romantic, and also dark and morbid and creepy. It’s a novel of art, obsession and possession, and has many layers and themes to ponder after the final page. A brilliant and assured debut novel from a very talented writer, I will look forward to Elizabeth MacNeal’s next novel with interest.
Reviewer: Karen McMillan
Macmillan, RRP $34.99