This novel felt less like a fight between good and evil, and more like an endless tussle between beauty and ugliness. Every character seems to want to either create, suspend, effuse or attract beauty.
Our main protagonist Iris has a collarbone twist that affects her gait only slightly, but is enough to make her feel unattractive along with her age: “She is twenty-one after all, and it is not long until her beauty tips like cream”. (I mean, good god). Her twin, Rose, has been heavily scarred by smallpox in early adulthood and feels that she is little more than a monster. They both work in a small shop, painting faces onto china dolls.
Louis Frost is a pre-Raphaelite artist (the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, by definition, rebelled against best practice at the time and preferred to capture the real world in its glory, capturing all minute detail and using vivid colors). He sees the beauty in Iris’ twisted collarbone and asks if she would model for him – something she agrees to only if he teaches her to paint.
Originally the most annoying and then, over time my favorite character, is Albie. He’s a street urchin with confidence and a vocabulary plucked straight out of Dickens who seeks, more than anything, to have a beautiful set of white teeth again and replace his rotting molars. He works to afford a set, picking up dead animals for Silas and allowing his sister to prostitute for food.
Silas Reed is our final main character who tries to trap, collate and present beauty in an extreme way unmatched by the other characters. He is a taxidermist who dreams of having his work presented in the yet-unbuilt Great Exhibition, and becomes utterly obsessed with the red-haired Iris, who he deems to be the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. In typical creepy-stalker fashion, he concocts an entire fake world where Iris is in love with him and understands his secret notes, reasoning that: “but an emotion this strong can only be reciprocated”. His thought process will be familiar to many women who have experienced any unwanted or unnerving attention from a man – the moment that you realise they have created a whole narrative around you where you have already bent to their will. It’s a violating feeling, and one that MacNeal describes astutely.
Iris is all too aware of her position as a model, only slightly less immodest than a prostitute in her parents eyes. She is also aware of her power as a woman, and expectation of society: “She should appreciate the attentions of men more, but she should resist them too, subtly, in a way both to encourage and discourage, so as not to lead to doubts of her purity and goodness but not to make the men feel snubbed” and the limitations that she faces as a painter due to her gender. She gets to make decisions for herself, and does not take for granted that privilege: “She has never had the luxury of choice before”.
Much like Silas’ delicate butterflies, suspended in presentation, each character tries to hold onto this attachment to beauty, but all find that it starts to decay as the story becomes more intertwined and the stakes increase. Silas takes the most drastic action to try to suspend and enjoy that beauty – and that’s what really ramps up the pace of the novel at the end.
It is well paced, with multiple subplots working well together and MacNeal getting a chance to show off her velvety prose, puncturing moments of dreamy beauty with slashes of violence, “in the quiet pause before the iron splits his skull as easily as an eggshell”.
I think I missed a lot of the subtext and nods to the real pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but that didn’t stop this from being an enjoyable and fast read. Go MacNeal.