Elizabeth Macneal’s debut historical novel arrives with some fanfare from the publishers of The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s wildly successful debut historical novel of 2014. For the most part, the excitement is justified. Macneal is a talented writer and this is a frankly moreish novel. We are not in Amsterdam in the 1680s this time but London in the 1850s.
Macneal’s heroine, Iris Whittle, was born with a slight deformity which has not dented her sanguine temperament, unlike her once beautiful but now bitter and pockmarked twin sister, Rose. It also doesn’t prevent her from catching the eye of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The sisters paint the faces on china dolls in Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium but Iris has (bold, given the period) ambitions to become a painter. She also has an admirer in the sinister taxidermist Silas Reed. At one stage, “He imagines her bladder within her, wet and pink like the inside of a peach, and then apart from her, dried out and white like a crisp pig’s ear.”