De­but with real charm

There’s a lit­tle youth­ful over- en­thu­si­asm, but El­iz­a­beth Mac­neal’s mag­pie eye and vivid style sup­port a fine nar­ra­tive Al­lan Massie

The Scotsman - - ARTS - @ alain­mas

The Doll Fac­tory scarcely needs a re­view. It is al­ready a suc­cess and, ac­cord­ing to its pub­lish­ers, is “the most cov­eted de­but of 2019, an in­tox­i­cat­ing story of art, ob­ses­sion and pos­ses­sion.” El­iz­a­beth Mac­neal is a grad­u­ate of the cre­ative writ­ing course at the Univer­sity of East Anglia where she was the Mal­colm Brad­bury Scholar, and The Doll Fac­tory has won her the Cale­do­nia Novel Award and has been sold to “28 ter­ri­to­ries so far,” while TV rights “have al­ready been snapped up.”

I’m not sur­prised. Who could re­sist a story of “art, ob­ses­sion and pos­ses­sion” be­gin­ning in Lon­don in 1850 as the Great Ex­hi­bi­tion in Hyde Park is be­ing pre­pared, and of­fer­ing an agree­able mix­ture of glam­our and squalor, invit­ing – and re­ceiv­ing – the ad­jec­tive “Dick­en­sian”? The castlist is headed by a ( slightly) dis­abled

girl, who works along­side her pock­marked sis­ter in the doll fac­tory of the ti­tle while nurs­ing an am­bi­tion to be a real painter, plus a ma­lig­nant taxi­der­mist and a re­source­ful street urchin with a sin­gle yel­low fang in his mouth, and the sup­port­ing cast in­cludes mem­bers of the PreRaphael­ite Brother­hood. More­over, her hero­ine, Iris, was born from Mac­neal’s fas­ci­na­tion with Lizzie Sid­dal, model for John Everett Mil­lais’ drowned Ophe­lia, and later not only the muse, model and un­happy wife of Dante Gabriel Ros­setti, but also a tal­ented painter her­self.

Mac­neal has a mag­pie’s eye for what­ever is bright and glit­ter­ing, and she writes vividly, em­ploy­ing the present tense more deftly and with more vi­vac­ity than is usual – that’s to say, it doesn’t, as so of­ten, pre­vent the nar­ra­tive from mov­ing briskly. Her char­ac­ters may be the stock fig­ures of pas­tiche Vic­to­rian fic­tion, but she con­trives to an­i­mate them suf­fi­ciently to make them pleas­ing. The nar­ra­tive is nicely or­ches­trated – so much so that im­prob­a­bil­i­ties are eas­ily ac­cepted. For the book is in its way a thriller too, cer­tainly a crime novel, even if the de­noue­ment falls short of be­ing sur­pris­ing.

In­evitably the ad­jec­tive “Dick­en­sian” will be at­tached to

The Doll Fac­tory. All nov­els set in the mid- 19th cen­tury and rev­el­ling in the splen­dour and con­trast­ing hor­rors of Vic­to­rian Lon­don are so called. This is use­ful short­hand, even if what is miss­ing from al­most ev­ery novel that is so la­belled is the moral se­ri­ous­ness of Bleak

House and Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, not to men­tion the hor­ror of Oliver

Twist. The Dick­en­sian novel, un­like a real Dick­ens novel, is pure en­ter­tain­ment and The Doll Fac­tory is un­ques­tion­ably en­ter­tain­ing.

It has its faults, but they are the faults of youth­ful en­thu­si­asm; the faults of a young writer sud­denly dis­cov­er­ing her power and tak­ing plea­sure in ex­hibit­ing it. In an au­thor’s note re­leased by

The book is in its way a thriller too, cer­tainly a crime novel

her pub­lish­ers, she tells us she “ab­so­lutely loved re­search­ing and writ­ing this novel, and cram­ming it full of all the things which fas­ci­nate me.” This is an hon­est con­fes­sion. Many have writ­ten first nov­els with a like en­thu­si­asm – some­times com­ing to re­gret that they have used up too much ex­pe­ri­ence. But I doubt if that’s the case here. The novel seems to de­rive from the au­thor’s en­thu­si­asms, not, like so many first nov­els, from her ex­pe­ri­ences. It’s not a story of her emo­tional, moral or in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment.

It’s ac­com­plished; there’s noth­ing raw about it. To­day’s young novelists have all been schooled in the mak­ing of a novel and they have usu­ally sub­mit­ted drafts of it to fel­low stu­dents as well as teach­ers, and taken their sugges­tions and crit­i­cisms on board. Their nov­els are far less clumsy, far less raw, than first nov­els so of­ten were a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions ago. The Doll Fac­tory is a per­fect ex­am­ple.

In the ac­knowl­edge­ments Mac­neal thanks a long list of peo­ple for their help and en­cour­age­ment. No doubt they have all been use­ful. Nev­er­the­less, it’s fair to as­sume that only she is re­spon­si­ble for the novel’s charm. It is in­deed charm­ing. But is it about any­thing that mat­ters? Per­haps we shall have to wait for a sec­ond or even a third novel be­fore know­ing whether the au­thor’s ev­i­dent abil­ity can carry her be­yond charm so that she deals with mat­ters of sig­nif­i­cance, writ­ing some­thing which has the reader en­gaged in both feel­ing and thought.

El­iz­a­beth Mac­neal’s ac­com­plished de­but has al­ready won her an award

The Doll Fac­tory By El­iz­a­beth Mac­neal Pi­cador, 361pp, £ 12.99

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