London. 1850. The greatest spectacle the city has ever seen is being built in Hyde Park, and among the crowd watching 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…
Iris is a fantastic character, and one that I admired greatly for making her own choices when everyone advised (told) her to do otherwise. At the start of the novel, Iris and her twin sister, Rose, work together at Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium, painting and clothing dolls. When Iris is offered the opportunity to model for Louis Frost, she sees her chance to escape the tedium of her life as well as the opportunity to learn to draw and paint as she makes this part of their agreement. Her sister and their parents warn her against it, threatening to cut her off, but Iris makes the difficult choice of following her dreams, and I loved the bravery she showed in doing so.
Part of the desire to get away from her life is based upon the relationship Iris has with her sister and their parents. Growing up, Iris was always the naughty one, the one who was told off for anything and nothing, while Rose was extremely well-behaved – roles that have continued into their adult lives. The two sisters were close, with Rose always defending her sister when she was bullied or made fun of because of her twisted collarbone. They remained close to the age of 15, when the beautiful Rose contracted smallpox, and while she survived, she was left with the scarring that can occur. Their relationship was never the same from this point on, and both Iris and the reader are left to wonder at Rose’s change in behaviour. Is it jealousy, or is there something else behind it? It’s a mystery for the reader to unravel.
The novel focusses a great deal on art, and I loved the way that this became part of the novel without becoming overwhelming. Louis is a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and rejects the accepted best practices of the art-world, preferring to use bold colours and the detail associated with more classical works, despite the criticism he receives because of it. I’ll be honest, I know very little about art and the Pre-Raphaelites, and I’ve heard of Rossetti (one of Louis’s friends and a fellow artist) only because I studied Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, his sister, at A-level. This didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel in the slightest, and I don’t believe I’d have enjoyed it any more if I had been more aware of the artistic angle of the novel.
While Iris is improving her artistic skills, Silas Reed, whom she met in a chance encounter that was quickly forgotten by her, begins to obsess over her, and this gives the novel a fantastically creepy edge that will keep you hooked as you wonder how far Silas is willing to go. I absolutely loved the chapters featuring Silas, who is socially awkward, and often looked down upon by those he would befriend. I struggled to feel much sympathy for him, however, as he clearly has some dark secrets in his past which are gradually revealed to the reader as the novel progresses.
The Doll Factory is a wonderful novel which brings to life Victorian London and the Great Exhibition. It is a dark story of love, art, and obsession that kept me gripped from first page to last as it builds up to its climatic ending. Highly recommended.
The Doll Factory will be published on 2 May by Picador. Many thanks to the publisher for allowing me to read an early copy via Netgalley.