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The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

The intoxicating story of a young woman who aspires to be an artist, and the man whose obsession may destroy her world for ever.

This is an unforgettable piece of chilling and gothic historical fiction, the debut from Elizabeth Macneal, set in the Victorian era. She writes an atmospheric and beautifully constructed story of art, ambition, a deranged obsession, love and horror, amidst the poverty, class divisions and entrenched inequalities, squalor, culture, scientific developments, and the prevalent social norms and attitudes of the time. Iris and her sister, Rose live humdrum lives painting dolls for the laudanum addicted Mrs Salter. It is 1850, the year of the Great Exhibition, and Iris has what is for her an inconsequential encounter with the odd and strange Silas, a troubled taxidermist with his shop of curiosities, visited by the medical profession and artists. For the lonely Silas, it is to mark the start of an all encompassing obsession.  Iris also encounters the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Louis Frost, who wants Iris to model for him, and which provides Iris with the opportunity she has been seeking to escape her suffocating life and social class to realise her dreams. Iris begins to have increasing feelings for Louis, but the disturbed Silas has other plans.

The author skilfully captures this historical period with her rich and evocative descriptions, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, the science, and in her diverse cast of characters. Her characterisation of Silas is stellar, he feels like a real and authentic character in all his madness, and I adored the young bright street child, Albie, with his understandable desire for a set of teeth. A gripping story, part thriller, part pure historical fiction. It is an unsettling, disturbing and immersive read.

Elizabeth Macneal will be in conversation about her novel at Book-ish on 8th May at 7.30pm. Tickets are £7 and include a glass of wine on arrival. Visit www.book-ish.co.uk to book tickets

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