Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton

This was a hauntingly lovely, deeply sad book that remained with me long after I finished it.The Miniaturist

Set in the Golden Age of The Netherlands, in Amsterdam in 1868, The Miniaturist tells the story of young Nelle (Petronella) Oortman who arrives on the doorstep of her new husband’s house and, as she crosses the threshold of this tidy, well-ordered home, steps into another world. Her husband, the wealthy, charming Johannes Brandt, lives in a place far removed from Nelle’s sheltered and rather Godly life in the country with her mother and younger siblings. In Amsterdam, the heart of trade and merchant-living in Europe, it’s guilders before God, and sweet Nelle finds the surface splendour and prim facades disguise deeper and curious as well as highly hypocritical undercurrents.

Swept into a life in which she feels she has no place, she is forced to deal with Johannes demanding sister, Marin, whose aloofness is countered only by her maid, Cornelia, who appears to Nelle to not understand the boundaries between employer and servant. A situation that’s made more puzzling by the presence of the coffee-skinned Otto, whose kindness and humanity is, when he leaves the house, disregarded by locals as his exoticness takes over, earning cruel barbs and awful assumptions. Nelle is overwhelmed by all this and prays that love will smooth her path, especially when her husband appears to neglect her.

Then, one day, Johannes buys her a beautiful dolls’-house. It’s a huge cabinet  – a replica of their place – that he invites her to furnish. Reluctant at first, Nelle acquiesces and hires the services of a superb miniaturist. But when the pieces she commissions are not only exceptionally fulfilled, but rendered in exquisite and intimate detail, she wonders what is going on. They are so life-like, prophetic, full of significance… Alarmed, she eventually reads the pieces and the messages that accompany them as signs of a life she should either aspire to or as a warning of what’s to come…

Part mystery, part lyrical portrayal of families and relationships and the complex webs we weave and in which we entrap ourselves and others, The Miniaturist is also an examination of social structures and the lengths people will go to in order to protect their place, their role, conceal their secrets, maintain what to some might be lies but to others are the veneers we must never allow to crack. Burton’s understanding and portrayal of the repressed but seething society of Amsterdam of this time is stunning. Her use of the doll’s house as an analogy for what goes on behind other closed doors, of how we can be fashioned in another’s image, moulded to an ideal, is very clever. I remember seeing these dolls’ houses at the Rikjs Museum when I lived in The Netherlands and thought them amazing. Their use here is unique and eerie. Unlike the life-like dolls made for Nelle and which she places inside her doll’s house, the characters in Burton’s real Dutch houses that abut each other, line the canals and share the repressive joys of community, come to life in ways that are surprising, distressing, utterly gripping and heart-wrenching.

I found this book hard to put down and am not surprised by the accolades it has received. Terrific.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Book review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I didn’t sThe Goldfincho much read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt as I was swept up in its powerful and sublime narrative with its exploration of love, loss, beauty, material objects and the relationship we can form with these and other people in our lives and how the choices we make, which are embedded in a moral code, define us.

The novel tells the tale of Theodore Decker who, suspended from school because of a questionable friendship he has formed as opposed to his own behaviour, has his life upended and shattered when he survives a tragedy that rocks New York. In the moments before and in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, he forms a bond with a young girl called Pippa and old man named Welty, both of whom become touchstones in what his life will become. Amid all the horror and shock that unfolds, Theo does something quite strange, he takes something extremely valuable and beautiful and tells no one what he has done

The consequences of this one action will echo and influence his life choices, merge into the memories of his past and erupt into the present in a prescient manner offering escape, promise and danger.

The novel then follows Theo’s life and the impact loss and accidental gain have upon him. His grief, his torment, the monotony and loneliness of his days are charted as he becomes not so much a victim of circumstance, but a victim of those determined to follow bureaucratic processes, tick their boxes and do the ‘right thing’ by this silent and oft sullen young man. This section of the book is heart-wrenching as well-intentioned people fail to see or understand how much Theo needs connection, longs for real communication and feeling, for someone to do more than simply satisfy the social niceties and offer platitudes. The only thing that allows him a link to his life before the tragedy, to experience and build any kind of emotional bridge is the object he has stolen. It speaks to him in ways that the humans in his life, even those closest to him, cannot.

It isn’t until he meets James Hobart, Hobie, an antique restorer and friend of Welty’s, and is reunited with Pippa that a semblance of meaning, if not hope, enters his life. But even this is transitory as Theo is at the whim of forces he cannot control and so his life is taken on journeys, undergoes trajectories he can neither navigate or foresee and, on the way, he collides and connects with others: his recalcitrant father, the ebullient and wonderfully strange Boris, the aloof but kind Barbours. Anchoring him on the ride his life becomes is his great secret, the object that has come to fill the hole left by the absence of those he loves.

From New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, from high society to the seedy underworld of crime and shady deals, drugs and booze, the novel follows Theo from his teens to his late twenties. Exquisitely written, it is a story I could not put down. Tartt’s ability to enter the mind and hearts of adolescents and adults is acute and heartfelt. Often philosophical and littered with references from popular and ‘high’ culture, the reader is swept along in the currents and eddies of Theo’s life in much the way he is. Filled with rich and complex characters, humour in surprising places, touching scenes that wring the heart and others that leave you frustrated and discontent, there is never a dull moment and, frankly, I was astonished by a few readers’ reviews that declared nothing happened in this novel. It may centre on a character who fundamentally embraces nihilism – or attempts to – but everything happens in this book. Everything that makes us human, that drives our needs, desires and hopes is explored. It seeks to understand what is free will, what is determinism. It ponders the great questions that have entertained and confounded philosophers since Aristotle, questions about life and death and meaning. It also asks, do we make our own luck or misfortune or is it somehow predestined? It is a morally and ethically complex novel that among many notions teases out the idea: do good acts necessarily lead to good outcomes and vice-a-versa? What if the wrong or bad decision can lead to the right ending? Or a good one bring about catastrophe? Does that make the entire choice or the person making it evil or their choice necessarily wrong? These are questions characters unconsciously embrace and finally ask outright. It’s left to us, the reader, to decide whether or not the answers are worthy or right (or not).

A fantastic story that lingers in the heart and head and which, like the object at its centre and the young man who obsesses over it, captivates you and whispers, “I have been written for you alone.” (Something that will make sense once you have read this utterly beautiful and haunting tale). Cannot recommend highly enough.


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Book Review: The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham

This is a fabulous, fast-paced novel that centres around Sikh Detective Constable, Alisha Barba who, having recovered from the shocking injury she incurred in Robotham’s earlier book, Lost, is at a professional loose end. Briefly reuniting with her best friend from childhood, Cate, after receiving an ambiguous letter, the chance to discuss what drove a wedge between them is taken away when Cate, who is pregnant, is severely injured in a hit and runThe Night Ferry. Recognizing someone at the scene of the crime, the intrepid Barba determines to discover who’s responsible for hurting her friend. But, as the body count of those associated with Cate and the case starts to rise, what Barba uncovers is a plot involving human traffickers, forced surrogacy and the most shocking abuses of human rights.

‘Trust no-one’ could be the tag line for this book as Barba relentlessly pursues her quarry and, in the process, risks everything for her best friend: her career, her lover and even her life.

I really enjoyed getting to know Barba in more depth in this novel. Conflicted, honest, brave and not afraid to take risks or invest in others (eventually!) she is a joy to get to know. Though her family feature as minor characters, they bring light relief to an otherwise dark tale and the interactions between them are real and display the deep fondness that families, even dysfunctional ones, enjoy. That Vincent Ruiz also returns was a bonus. Seeing him through yet another character’s eyes (other than Joe’s) also gave him additional depths and enhanced his already admirable qualities.

I love the way Robotham writes. Whether it’s his pithy one-liners (when describing young people defacing a wall, he writes they were ‘practicing their literacy skills’) or the poignant insights he offers into prostitution, parenthood or the complex relationships we form with family, friends, and others we love and loathe, there is such beauty and elegance to his writing. Robotham is capable of poetic prose,  sharp, moody scenes and positively heart-wrenching moments as well. His descriptions of Amsterdam were wonderful. The canals, the red light district and the cobbled streets were brought to life. Equally, however, Robotham captures the horror of confinement, the agony of displacement and loss, of being always “Othered”, and the physical and emotional roller coaster of childbirth. This book segues from making the reader feel assured to placing us, through the characters, in situations where we lose our equilibrium and you have to keep reading in order to regain footing. Reading The Night Ferry is, like all Robotham books, an utterly thrilling experience.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments