Two sisters, Iris and Rose, have a strong but jealous bond. They sit side-by-side while they sew clothes for dolls in the front room of a 19th century shop. It’s small, it’s stifling and it smells. I wanted to get out so it was no surprise that Iris did as well. Iris has a slight physical deformity but she manages to conceal it more successfully than that of her sister’s, whose scars and milky white eye are the reminders of her battle with small pox. As Iris sews, she longs for freedom from the confines of the shop and its matriarch, the clinginess of her sister, and her future life laid out before her by society. Her mind is curious and alive with images and a heart that beats wildly to be painting them. Her chance comes when she is approached by a painter, Louis, to become his muse, an opportunity that Iris takes albeit with risks; separation from her sister, leaving employment, being disowned by her parents and ‘respectable’ society, while also dashing any hopes of a ‘suitable’ marriage.
I was caught up in Iris’s yearning to take charge of her own destiny while she challenges the ‘norms’ of the class system prevalent in this time period. However, in the midst of this exciting adventure, Iris is unaware that she has also caught the eye of another gentleman, Silas, who has an obsession with taxidermy and a history of extreme violence. Silas is one of the foulest, creepiest and captivating characters that I have read! He reminded me a little of Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. When Iris crosses his path I immediately felt the twist in my stomach of trepidation… run, run, run Iris! As Louis and Silas draw closer to Iris she soon realises that it’s dangerous to be a woman on her own; both in giving away her heart to a man who may not love her in return, as well as becoming the object of another man’s disturbing desires. Was her freedom worth the risk of stepping outside the safe and secure role that society demanded she play?
‘The Doll Factory’ was unputdownable and at times made me squeamish. But altogether it’s a gripping drama with period detail so vividly brought to life. For readers who like their fiction with a smattering of ‘darker’ themes, much like Laura Purcell and Anna Mazzola.
Reviewed by Belinda