A very stylish debut from Elizabeth Macneal, earning the praise of Ian Rankin, Hannah Kent, Paula Hawkins and Elizabeth Day among many others. And deservedly so. Set in London between 1850-1852, the time of the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace, it combines a tale of happy achievement with the dankest, darkest creepiness of obsession. The happy achiever, or so it seems at first, is Iris Whittle, who escapes her work painting simpering faces on china dolls in Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium for a life as model, student and eventually lover, to the pre-Raphaelite painter Louis Short (not a real person), the friend of Millais and Rossetti. But Iris has attracted the attention of Silas Reed, partly because she reminds him of his lost childhood love Flick, and partly because she has a defect of the collarbone. Silas’s livelihood, and his passion, is preserving “curiosities” – lambs, kittens, snakes, lizards pickled in jars, stuffed animals and the skeletons of the animals, and he is particularly drawn to deformed animals. You get the picture. Silas is a real creep, and a very dangerous one. Soon he’s stalking Iris.
Shuttling between the privileged world of Louis Short and the world of Silas Reed is 10-year-old Albie, an urchin whose business is keeping himself and his sister alive.
He blows on his little fists to warm them and takes off at a run. The boy zigzags through the streets, rickety legs bowed outwards. He runs west, through the muck of Soho. Gaunt whores track his racing limbs with tatty eyes, just as worn-out cats watch a fly. (13)
There’s so much in these few lines, and it’s characteristic of Macneal’s style. The picture of London is so rich and vivid that it surprised me when I thought about it later how little it depends on elaborate visual description. It’s captured in movement, sound, smell and texture, in close details like Albie’s bowed legs, drifts of horse dung in the streets, the thunder of horses, some silver-bridled, others gaunt and foaming, the sticky grime of laneway walls.
Iris may be a talented painter, but as the title suggests, women are still “dolls”, whether it’s as prostitutes or as objects of the male gaze or the male fetish. Like the blank china dolls’ heads, they have no face of their own. This isn’t a new theme, of course, and it was less interesting to me than the story of Albie, which draws into itself so much of the everyday lives of the poor in Victorian London. When someone is hit by a cart and killed, you don’t just think about the victim – you can’t help wondering how on earth the carter is going to survive without his horse, which has to be put down. It’s shocking to think that this was normal life not really so very long ago.
Absorbing, exciting, moving and scary: another good old-fashioned read to get your teeth to. (Apologies to the toothless Albie, whose dream is to buy a set of real choppers).