In this novel, a pair of twins unhappily work in a doll shop and a collector of rare specimens, Silas, takes interest in one of them. Iris also fall under the gaze of a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters hoping to take Victorian London by storm.
The drudgery of Iris’ work is palpable. What she wants more than anything is to become an artist. Louis, a member of the Brotherhood, offers her a chance of a lifetime. He tells Iris,
“I can teach you how to use oils, and perhaps next year you can enter a canvas into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.”
The offer, however, is contingent upon her becoming a model for him. He promises to also teach her to paint–something that Iris has longed for all her life.
Her family disowns her after she becomes Louis’ model. They feel its unbecoming of a woman to live alone and work as an artists model. This leaves her more vulnerable to the local psychopath, Silas.
MacNeal skillfully creates this character by first hiding his flaws. Silas originally appears as just another impassioned artist, except in his case he is interested in curiosities. He preserves dead animals and skeletons, butterflies, and other odd assortments.
Oddly enough, several women associated with Silas go missing–Flick, Bluebell, and now Iris.
The novel skillfully draws readers into the Victorian world. Readers care about the plight of the protagonists–Louis who has gotten himself in a quandary–and Iris who desperately wants to be free to paint. Like the queen in Louis’ painting, Iris finds herself figuratively and literally imprisoned.
In writing that rivals the best suspense novel, MacNeal takes readers into the mind of a serial killer and contrasts it with a desperate woman’s fight for freedom.