The Eliza Doll by Tracey Scott-Townsend

Ellie can’t work out whether she’s running away from the past or towards a future she always felt she should have had. She left university and had baby after baby without even meaning to. But it was her third child she blamed for ruining her life.

Now her children have grown and Ellie is on her own. She shocks everybody by selling her home and moving into a converted van to travel the country selling handmade dolls at craft fairs.

It can be lonely on the road. Ellie has two companions: her dog, Jack, and the mysterious
Eliza who turns up in the most unexpected places. At every encounter with Eliza, Ellie feels as if she’s standing again in the aching cold of a waterfall in Iceland, the sound of crashing water filling her with dread.

Ellie can’t change the past. But is it really too late to rectify the bad thing she did when Eliza was a baby?

Just … Wow! I’ve read two of Tracey Scott-Townsend’s novels – The Last Time We Saw Marion and Another Rebecca, and loved them both. This one just completely took my breath away, and I think it might well be her best yet.

It’s the story of Ellie – daughter, sister, wife, aunt, friend, and mother of five. A woman who seems to be defined by her relationships to other people. She spends her life putting their needs first, doing what’s best for them, working out what they want, keeping their secrets. Ellie’s life is all about compromise and sacrifice, and how she puts aside her own wants and needs to care for the people around her. She is, in effect, a faceless doll.

When the story opens, Ellie is living in a camper van with her dog, Jack. She is fifty years old, and the story flashes between her present-day life, her days as a young wife and mother, and her journey to Iceland with Jonah – where they are going to meet up with their third child, Eliza. Although Ellie’s life is told in a disjointed fashion, out of sequence, each scene is dated, so we know exactly where on Ellie’s timeline we are, and we’re also told whose eyes we are looking through, so it’s not difficult to follow.

Ellie becomes a mother far too young, and way before she’s ready. Her partner, Jonah, isn’t ready either. In fact, he’s even less prepared than Ellie is, and when baby Rosie arrives, he fails to adapt to parenthood. Jonah’s focus is on his music career, and he spends his days smoking cannabis, hanging out with his bandmates, working on his songs and dreaming of stardom. Always chasing that elusive record deal which is always “just around the corner”, Jonah neglects his daughter, and neglects his wife. Ellie devotes herself to her baby and tries to convince herself that things will be okay. She has little support from her own family to fall back on. Her father is a distant and rather menacing figure. Her mother is brittle and disapproving. Her sister is openly hostile and resentful, and doesn’t appear to want any kind of relationship with Ellie.

Jonah and Ellie move to a commune at Pottersea. Pottersea is a remote village on the East Yorkshire coast – sitting between the river and the sea. The location is beautifully drawn, and as someone who has visited the real life “Pottersea”, I could picture Ellie’s home and way of life so well. I haven’t been for many years, but this book made me want to go back there and look at it again with different eyes. I really loved reading about life in the commune and how Ellie and Rosie find their place there. There are lots of characters to get to know, but they are all interesting and relevant.

Ellie’s relationship with Jonah is not a good one, yet they are drawn together at intervals, rediscovering each other before drifting apart again. Unfortunately, each time they find each other again, Ellie finds herself with another baby to care for. She is horrified to discover baby number three is on the way, and tries to deny her pregnancy for many months. Before long, though, she is forced to accept it, and her life is altered. She and Jonah have to set out on a new path together, and move back to Hull where their third child is born. Eliza is a difficult little girl, and Ellie initially struggles to bond with her. Her eldest daughter, Rosie, is resentful of the attention Eliza gets, and a distance grows between Ellie and her first-born child.

Throughout the story, there’s a strong sense of something hidden from us. A kind of menacing feeling grows, and we know that we’re heading somewhere dark. Something huge has happened in Ellie’s life, and we, the readers, are led slowly down a winding path to the events that have resulted in Ellie making this strange new life for herself – giving up her home, her marriage, and spending her days in a van, making dolls to sell at markets and craft fairs.

The pace is unhurried, and the story unfolds gently, but the writing is so beautiful that the story seems to zip along just the same. There are no lulls in the narrative. No bits that I was tempted to skim over. Every sentence was precious, and I couldn’t put the book down until I finished it. When the story ended, I clutched the Kindle to me and took a deep breath. It felt as if I was emerging from deep Icelandic waters myself. But then, Tracey Scott-Townsend’s books always have that effect on me. It’s as if they take over and haunt me. This author really does have an exceptional talent, and I can’t recommend her books highly enough.

I don’t want to give anything more of the story away, so I’ll leave it there. The Eliza Doll is gripping, moving, haunting, devastating, beautiful … just read it for yourself and you’ll see.

You can buy The Eliza Doll here.