The next book to be featured on the Jo Whiley Radio 2 Book Club will be The Doll Factory, the brilliant debut novel by Elizabeth Macneal. It was released on 2 May and Elizabeth will be on the show on Monday 10 June.
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The Doll Factory
An intoxicating tale of art, obsession and possession, The Doll Factory is set in London in the 1850s, and tells the story of Iris, an apprentice doll-maker who dreams of being a painter, and of Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by the strange and beautiful with ambitions of founding a museum dedicated to his macabre obsessions.
The Great Exhibition is being constructed in Hyde Park, and two people meet among the crowd. For Iris, it is the encounter of a moment, forgotten seconds later, but for Silas, the meeting marks a new beginning. When Iris is asked to model from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint, and suddenly her world begins to expand, to become a place of the new dual freedoms of art and love. But Silas has thought of one thing only since that chance encounter, and his obsession is darkening.
Selection panel review
The book was selected with the help of a panel of library staff from across the UK. Our readers loved The Doll Factory – here are some of their comments:
“It is a pacy read that is part historical drama and part thriller. It immediately engages you with this small group of humanity all living around the build up to the Great Exhibition. It is a novel about art and creativity, but also a story of love and obsession, of wanting to escape the bounds of your social standing, about hopes and dreams, I felt it had a lot to offer to a wide group of readers.”
“This book has a deliciously gothic sense of tension and dread running through it, which builds to a dramatic climax. It is peppered with creepy revelations; the insights into the mind of one of the main protagonists, taxidermist and collector Silas, are particularly sinister – a certain ‘reveal’ will certainly stay with me! Characters are well written, and giving each their own chapters means that we are drawn into their world and subsequently care about what will happen to them. Period details and references to real-life figures of the age gave the narrative a strong historical grounding, and made the descriptions even more immersive. I found it gripping from start to finish.”
“I thought this was a stunning read. The cover is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen, and the evocative descriptions throughout the book kept the visual treats coming on every page. The characters were well-drawn, and you rooted for Iris whilst being repulsed by Silas. His storyline was terrifying mostly because, seeing things through his eyes, you could see how he could justify his terrible thoughts. Such a treat!”
About the author
Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland in 1988, and now lives in East London. While studying English at Oxford she wrote a dissertation on clutter in 1850s literature, in which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were a key feature, and which deepened her fascination with and love of the period and its art and literature. On graduating, Elizabeth moved to London and worked in the city for five years as a management consultant, but gave up that career to focus on writing and ceramics. Elizabeth Macneal is a professional potter, working out of a small studio at the bottom of her garden, and her work is sold in the Wallace Collection and Botanique Workshop, among others.
In 2017, Elizabeth completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA, with the opening chapters of The Doll Factory forming her dissertation, and where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury Scholarship. The Doll Factory won the Caledonia Novel Award, and was bought by Picador after a 14-way auction, with international rights having been sold to over 30 territories so far. TV rights have already been snapped up in a major deal. Elizabeth is currently working on her second novel; when not at her writing desk, she is at her wheel or kiln.
A word from Elizabeth
“I was so happy when I heard that The Doll Factory had been chosen for the Radio 2 Book Club. This is my first novel, and it’s absolutely fantastic to have support like this. Libraries have been so important to me, ever since I was a child and my siblings and I piled in the car every week to go to the library. Each book was a portal to a different world and I couldn’t wait to lose myself in a different century, a different kingdom, a different place.
I started writing The Doll Factory in the same year that I started my pottery business, and I crammed it full of everything that interested me. There are wombats and destroyed paintings, a doll-making shop presided over by a laudanum addict, an artist’s studio lined with peacock feathers, a curiosity shop stuffed with the strangest of creatures, and the greatest exhibition London had ever seen. And at the centre of it is Iris, a woman who longs to be free and to have the freedom to be an artist, and Silas, a collector of curiosities whose obsession might destroy her world forever.
I really hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing and researching it, and thank you so much again!"
Tune in to Jo Whiley’s show on Monday 10 June to hear a live interview with Elizabeth.You can also see what other readers thought or add the book to your group’s reading list.
Planning to buy The Doll Factory for your group? Buy books from Hive and support The Reading Agency and local bookshops at no extra cost to you.