Author, Book review, Elizabeth MacNeal, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019.

Art, freedom and obsession collide in Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory. This debut novel marries historical fiction with elements of the psychological thriller to create a proper page-turner. I practically devoured this book on a seven-hour train journey (from Kalgoorlie to Perth) last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since.

It’s set in London during the Great Exhibition and the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a loose association of English painters who rebelled against the art standards of the day (read more about them here), and focuses on a young woman called Iris Whittle who is drawn into their circle, first as an artist’s model, but then as a burgeoning painter in her own right.

Along the way, she attracts the unwanted attention of a taxidermist, Silas Reed, who is constantly in pursuit of the weird and wonderful. Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and her deformity — a collarbone that is twisted out of shape so that she has a slight stoop to her left side — and makes plans to befriend her, whether she likes it or not.

What results is a fast-paced story in which Iris, oblivious to Silas’s increasingly dangerous obsession with her, falls prey to his dark, manipulative ways…

Painterly ambition

When we first meet independently minded Iris she is working (and living) in a doll factory (hence the book’s title) alongside her twin sister Rose, painting faces onto dozens of porcelain dolls every day.

The long 12-hour shifts are monotonous and dull. Iris dreams of doing something more interesting with her life. She has a talent for painting and longs to pursue this, but, of course, conventions of the day generally restrict women from leading lives that are anything other than domestic.

A chance encounter with a member of the PRB, attracted to her flame-red hair and quiet beauty, offers her a means of escape. In exchange for becoming an artist’s model, she will be given art lessons to explore her talent.

But what seems like a no-brainer is fraught with pitfalls, for to do so she will earn the wrath of society (to be an artist’s model at the time was akin to being a whore) and her family will disown her.

There are further complications because Iris has no idea that a man she accidentally bumped into at Hyde Park a few weeks earlier has developed a “thing” for her. Silas Reed’s quiet pursuit of her goes relatively unnoticed. She ignores his later invite to visit his shop (“Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New”) and is unaware that the Great Exhibition ticket that arrives in the post is an anonymous gift from him.

Being oblivious to these “signs” only puts Iris in more danger for she is unable to take steps to protect herself — with far-reaching consequences.

Historical fiction

There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Collector here (a book I read so long ago that my memory of it is quite vague), but for all its creepiness and, at times, morbid atmosphere, this isn’t a psychological thriller as such.

The Doll Factory is primarily a well researched historical novel, incredibly evocative and rich in detail, which brings the sights and smells of 1850s London to life on the page.

It’s a novel about art and pursuing dreams and having the freedom to live life as you want to live it, something that wasn’t typically open to women in the 19th century. It also explores what it was like to be a woman at the time, to constantly be in the male gaze, to modify your behaviour to keep men happy, to do things that would not call your morality into question.

It’s one of those well-crafted, entertaining novels ideal for those times when you are simply looking for something quick and absorbing to read, but because it is also underpinned by important issues and rooted in historical fact, it’s got enough meat on the bones to make it chewy, too.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Deanna Raybourn, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, London, Mira Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Silent in the Grave’ by Deanna Raybourn

SilentintheGrave

Fiction – paperback; Mira Books; 544 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Deanna Raybourn’s debut novel, Silent in the Grave, kicks off with one of the more memorable opening lines I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading:

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.

The “I” in question is Lady Julia Grey, who turns out to be the wonderfully feisty late-20-something heroine of this extraordinarily fun novel, which is set in Victorian London. Together with private investigator Nicholas Brisbane, a tall, dark and handsome man, she sets out to discover who murdered her husband, although she is initially sceptical that his death was caused by anything other than natural causes.

The ensuing investigation is hampered from the outset, not the least because Julia is from a rich family where she is expected to play the part of a bereaved widow for at least a year, closeted from the world in her large London townhouse. But also because Nicholas Brisbane isn’t exactly the easiest person to work with, riddled as he is by a mysterious illness and an equally mysterious past.

Determined to seek justice before beginning her life afresh, Julia sets about interviewing her servants and searching their rooms for clues. What she discovers isn’t pleasant — and before the story ends she must confront everything from gypsies to prostitutes in a bid to find her husband’s killer.

Silent in the Grave is a rollicking good story that ploughs along at a furious pace, ably assisted by page-turning cliff hangers at the end of each chapter, so that you begin to wonder whether you will ever put the book down! The plot is terrific, with enough red herrings to keep you guessing, right up until the dark and somewhat unexpected denouement.

The setting feels authentic, rich in historical detail, so that you can almost hear the clamour of horses hooves on London’s cobbled streets or the swish of silk as the heroine scuttles down darkened corridors in pursuit of her quarry. And Lady Julia Grey is a brilliant creation. A tough, intelligent woman — probably a century before her time — who doesn’t take any prisoners but still knows when to be polite and gracious. I loved her.

The effortless writing style, which has a touch of the Jane Austens about it, is littered with cracking one-liners, too, so that I found myself tittering all the way through the book.

Apparently Silent in the Grave is the first in a new series featuring Lady Julia Grey and Nicholas Brisbane. Naturally, I will be keeping my eye out for the second book, although I’m afraid it has a lot to live up to if it is to be anything half as brilliant as this one. Let’s just hope Raybourne doesn’t suffer from second novel nerves!

Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘All He Ever Wanted’ by Anita Shreve

AllHeEverWanted

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 304 pages; 2003.

Anita Shreve‘s All He Ever Wanted was a surprisingly enjoyable book. I say surprising because as much as I have enjoyed Shreve’s other novels, Sea Glass and Strange Fits of Passion, I found the opening chapter a little stodgy and wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted to continue.

But I’m glad I persevered. Once I got used to the voice of the narrator, Nicholas Van Tassel, an English professor, who “speaks” in a pompous, sometimes convoluted, manner, I got swept away by the story.

Set in the late 19th and early 20th century it follows the relationship between Van Tassel and the love of his life, Etna Bliss, who agrees to marry him despite the fact she does not love him in return. Obviously this is not a match made in heaven but Van Tassel is blind or unwilling to acknowledge that all is not well.

While Etna plays the obedient wife and bears him two children, she also keeps a secret which threatens to destroy the marriage at a later date. It is when this secret becomes known that we see the obsessive jealousies and passions which have dominated Van Tassel’s life; he will stoop to anything to hang onto his wife. Coupled with his ambitions to become dean at the college to which he has taught for most of his life, we see a desperate man reduced to desperate measures and it is not a pretty sight.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It deals with big themes — love, honour, betrayal — with a deftness of touch. Shreve’s writing is incredibly evocative of a past era; she captures the social mores of the time perfectly. She explores the inner workings of the human heart with equal aplomb.

Definitely a winning novel and a good, intriguing read for a wet and wintry day.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Per Olov Enquist, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Visit of the Royal Physician’ by Per Olov Enquist

Visit

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 309 pages; 2003. Translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally.

The Visit of the Royal Physician, an historical novel by Per Olov Enquist, is set in Denmark at the height of the Enlightenment.

It tells the story of the half-wit king, Christian VII, whose behaviour swings between outrageous violence one minute and confused innocence the next. His advisors capitalise on the young king’s madness to run the country as they see fit, controlling not only the so-called ruler but the nation state as well. This creates many dangerous political battles between rival advisors.

To complicate matters further, the king is unable or unwilling to consummate his relationship with his wife, Caroline Mathilde. She then turns to the arms of another and conducts an adulterous affair with Christian’s most trusted adviser, Struensee — the royal physician of the book’s title. It does not take long before she falls pregnant to him, risking scandal and expulsion from the kingdom, which, in turn, threatens to undermine the very stability and security of Denmark itself.

All in all this is a dark and somewhat astonishing story reminiscent of Rose Tremain’s award-winning Music & Silence but set 140 years apart. The Visit of the Royal Physician is imbued with the same sense of drama, romance, betrayal and political intrigue that characterised Tremain’s wonderfully mesmerizing book. But Olov Enquist, a Swedish author, has written it as reportage, which adds an extra layer of authenticity to the story.

If you like your historical novels to resonate with passion and suspense, you won’t go far wrong with this one. I thoroughly enjoyed it — though Tremain’s foray into Danish history is still the best one I’ve come across.