Iris and her twin sister Rose Whittle work for Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium. They make the costumes for china dolls. Often the dolls are ordered by clients to celebrate the death of an infant or some significant event in their lives. Iris was born with a twisted shoulder as a result of her shoulder being stuck in the birth canal when she was born and her sister Rose was disfigured as a result of smallpox. The girls paint the features on the dolls, but Iris dreams of becoming a painter. A fantasy that can never be achieved through lack of money for lessons, paints and canvases.
Iris catches the eye of a pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost who wants her to be his full-time model. Iris, after some persuasion, agrees, but only on the condition Louis gives her art lessons. Rose and their parents think she is nothing more than a whore and they cut off any further contact. Louis also finds accommodation for Iris which also is a matter of contention with her family, further fuelling the fire of her being a “kept woman”.
Iris also has another admirer, the rather odd and creepy character Silas Reed. Silas catches vermin then with the art of taxidermy presents them on stands, dressing them in clothes. People have a morbid fascination with them, with many displayed in drawing rooms. Silas is also a butt of jokes as he is an odd- looking character often found in public houses muttering into his tankard. Silas, over time, becomes more and more obsessed with Iris, imagining her returning his infatuation.
The author has put together some fascinating characters together in this engrossing book, and it is a rather intriguing and at times spin- chilling read. I had to put it down at times and catch my breath before continuing. A great novel.
Reviewed by Christine Frayling
The Doll Factory
by Elizabeth Macneal
Published by Picador