The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton: a book of two halves

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand–and fear–the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Review:

This is an interesting and brave book but it doesn’t quite work; it’s definitely a book of two halves, which don’t hang together. The Nella of the first half is dull and weak, whereas the Nella of the second half is very feisty and gripping. I think there should have been more of the hint of feistiness in the first half to try to hold the book together. It’s also fair to say that the writing of the first half is very long-winded, but suddenly when the plot actually begins half way through, this is when the story starts to sing.

I did have to say that I guessed about the baby issue long before Nella realised, so it was no surprise and really something of a cliche. Strangely, the story about the miniaturist is rather out of place and tends to slow the book down – we didn’t need this and it all fades out into something nonsensical in the end anyway. Still, the portrait of a new and challenging marriage and the fabulous writing in the last few chapters of the book make this worth reading, but probably best to start halfway through.

3 out of 5 stars

Anne Brooke Books

Sweet Caress by William Boyd: an interesting failure

 

Key issues about this book:

1. The fiction in an autobiographical style was interesting, but not particularly attention-grabbing
2. No character grabbed me (apart from Amory’s brother and sister, from whom I would have liked to have heard a lot more as they have more interesting lives) and they all seem distant. Amory was written in a very ‘thin’ manner, with no substance to her, which was disappointing.
3. Amory is defined by the men in her life and makes lots of really important decisions on a whim and for selfish reasons
4. The photographs in the novel are excruciatingly amateur and a waste of time
5. The story is packed with cliches – e.g. the lover’s wife being in a wheelchair, the blackshirt riots, the war pieces, the hippy community crisis and the undeveloped incident with Marlene Dietrich
6. Boyd writes Amory’s sex scenes as if she were a man, sigh …

Not one I’d recommend.

5 out of 10 stars

Anne Brooke Books

Blog 72: Julia by Otto de Kat – a missed opportunity for greatness

Julia

As a young man working in Lubeck in 1938, with Germany already in thrall to the Nazis, Chris Dudok is irresistibly drawn to Julia, a light-footed, bold and libertine engineer who has emphatically rejected Hitler’s new order. But that same year his courage is tested to its limits: he is forced to leave both Germany and the woman he loves, even though he suspects that he is making the greatest mistake of his life. It is only many years later, a long time after the war, that Julia’s true story comes to light.

The first chapter of this novella was utterly brilliant – I loved the chauffeur, Van Dijk, and his discovery of and reaction to his dead boss. I thought he was a wonderful character and was instantly gripped by his voice and story.

It’s a shame then that from the second chapter onwards and for almost the rest of the book, we are given instead the story of Chris, the dead boss, and the events both in the war and leading up to his death. I’m sorry to say that Chris was a very irritating character and one of the most indecisive and weak literary men I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting. This may be in part due to the fact that a large portion of his story is told to us rather than being shown to us, so I felt very disengaged indeed from what is happening to him. How I longed to return to that first chapter.

I also didn’t believe in Chris’s deep and abiding love for Julia, the woman he loses in the war. Indeed, Julia, like Chris, also tells us a great deal of things and becomes very quickly wearisome as a character. Really, the two of them deserved each other, but were of little interest to me as a reader. That said, the prose is very nice, but this factor is nowhere near enough to make a book sing. And Chris takes far too long in getting (at last!) to the moment of death, alas …

So it was with great relief that the final chapter brings us back to that wonderful chauffeur once more, and the ending is very powerful indeed. Van Dijk very much deserves his own book and is wasted in this one.

3 stars: a missed opportunity for a great character who is forced to remain on the sidelines

Anne Brooke Books
The Gathandrian Fantasy Trilogy
Gay Reads UK