Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

"The Miniaturist" by Jessie Burton (Picador, 2014)

It starts in January 1687, in Amsterdam at a funeral. The deceased and the characters aren't named. The 2nd chapter is in October 1686. Nella arrives for the first time at her husband's house. They married a month before, then he dashed away on business. She comes from a little village with her parakeet Peebo into dowdy splendour. Already some of the clues in chapter 1 are given more context. We're soon informed of characters' names and ages: Petronella (Nella) Oortman (18, wife of Johannes; an arranged, unconsumated marriage), Johannes Brandt (39), Marin Brandt (c.28, Johannes' sister), Otta (c.30, manservant), Cornelia (c.20, maid - an orphan).

Nella feels out of her depth early on, when Marin and Johannes discuss trade. Well conveyed also are the tensions between members of the household sensed by the newcomer who's likely to affect power hierarchies. Already a contrast between rather Puritan principles and wealth acquisition is displayed. Each character seems to be hiding a secret. Marin has had an affair, Otta is from Surinam and attracts racial abuse. Cornelia has some surprising contacts. Johannes rejects Nella's advances.

The plot thickens further. She's given a display cabinet - a sort of giant empty doll's house - by her husband, a replica of their house. She's tasked with finding contents for it. When she orders a few items she gets some extra ones back indicating that the supplier - the miniaturist - has inside information. This thread supplies a sequences of mysteries, not least of which where the miniaturist goes, and how she knew so much about the future as well as the present.

Nella discovers Johannes naked with Jack - a sin punishable by death. She realises that the household knows - they're all in it together. Marin explains to Nella how women - her in particular - can exploit their situation. The pace never sags - Marin and Frans loved each other but Johannes stopped them marrying; the church bans dolls; Jack causes a scene and is stabbed by Otta. Johannes' is arrested for sodomy. Marin is pregnant. Agnes (wife of Frans) has a house-cabinet too. Marin dies in childbirth - the father is Otta who's fled, but returns at the end. Johannes is executed.


I'm unsure about the language -

  • At the bottom of p.2 begins a passage of 5 sentences that has "as the ... As the .. as ... As the"
  • Nella's not stupid, but the words used to convey her thoughts are sometimes surprising - e.g. "The uninvited observation hovers like a challenge, and Nella wonders at its odd defiance. Perhaps this is fashionable conversation - combative and unsettling, passing for casual talk" (p.73)

Point of view

  • On p.8 there's this paragraph. I'm not picking it out because I think it's bad, but because it's typical -
    Nella turns back to the door, now slightly ajar. Was it like this before? She cannot be sure. She pushes on it, peering into the void as cool air rises from the marble. 'Johannes Brandt?' she calls - loud, a little panicked. Is this a game? she thinks. I'll be standing here come January. Peebo, her parakeet, thrills the tip of his feathers against the cage bars, his faint cheep falling short on the marble. Even the now-quiet canal behind them seems to hold its breath.
    Suspense is being generated and information (names, etc) is being conveyed. We're sometimes in the mind of Nella, using her language. Sometimes the omniscient narrator adds a description e.g. - "thrills the tip". Else when it's harder to assign a thinker to the thoughts - I'm unsure who thinks the canal is holding its breath (the phrase is melodramatic at best), or whether Nella is aware that she's loud and panicky.
  • The omniscient intrusions are sometimes a surprise - "Nella lifts the top one off the pile, too curious about Marin's reading habits to think about anyone coming up the stairs. The first book is a travel journal entitled The Unfortunate Voyage of the Ship Batavia. Most people in the United Provinces are familiar with the story of Corneliszoon's mutiny, the infamous onboard enslavement of Lucretia Jans and her implication in the murders of the survivors. Nella is no exception" (p.52). Sections sometimes end with mini-cliffhangers like "But the Kalnerstraat is once again quiet, unaware of the presence hiding in its heart" (p.132)


It doesn't always ring true -

  • "His body is a story in itself, starting sharp with an uncertain end" (p.73)
  • "She feels drained by the chamber's energy, as crystalized as the chunks of sugar-dusted fruit" (p.73)
  • "Nella experiences the unprecedented sensation of being impaled - the woman's scrutiny is like a beam of cold light dissecting her, filling her with an awareness of her own body" (p.69)

Other reviews

  • Rachel Cooke (Nella, it soon becomes apparent, has a sensibility more akin to that of a 21st-century teenager than a 17th-century one ... for all its conceits and ingenuity, for all the lovely passages to be found among its pages, somehow it fails to convince. Again and again, I found myself thinking: that would not happen. ... Emotionally, they move from A to Z in the blink of an eye, and nothing in between ... much-hyped but unconvincing)
  • Rachel Hore (Nella is a heroine to suit a modern readership, but the nature of her tolerance and understanding would have made her highly unusual for her time. Much else, too, about the novel reflects the concerns of the 21st century and while this gives it edge and accessibility, occasionally I longed for the 17th century to be left to be itself.)
  • Holly Kyte (Counterbalancing all this filigree work is a bold plot. There’s no room for longueurs, even in 400-odd pages. It makes for a gripping read – there’s a tense trial at its heart – but it can feel a touch forced. Almost every kind of bigotry is stuffed in for scrutiny – gender, race, sexuality – which borders on overkill, too much 21st-century liberalism for our 17th-century characters to realistically bear.)
  • Melissa Harrison (Key scenes waver out of Burton’s control, leaving the reader unclear about what has happened and why; the flow of time is uneven, and some characters’ motivations (including that of the miniaturist) are unclear. A general sense of imprecision runs through the book, from plot right down to the level of metaphor and language: Marin collapses “like a particularly beautiful tree”; a baby “sallies a cry”; Nella “explodes her fury” in a letter, experiences “a cusping terror” and feels “differenced” by events. ... To manage a little dwelling filled with tiny likenesses of people is, of course, a metaphor for the act of novel writing, and one’s tolerance (or lack thereof) for the doll’s-house conceit here may well correlate with tolerance for the author’s handling of her readers.)
  • Carol Memmott (Is the miniaturist someone with access to the Brandt household? That Burton never gives us the answer, and the miniaturist remains in the shadows, is the novel's major shortcoming. ... Burton's main characters are not nearly as colorful or well drawn. They're complex and complicated and suffer terrible tragedies, but Burton doesn't give us a deep enough look into their psyches. ... And can one family harbor so many dangerous secrets that the sheer quantity challenges our suspension of disbelief? ... And their behavior, sometimes, just doesn't make sense. ... Few novels are perfect, and despite its flaws, there's much to like in "The Miniaturist")

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