Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton and the end of my love affair with historical fiction

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton The Miniaturist (3 July 2014) by Jessie Burton

At some point within the past couple of years, I've lost the passion I used to have for historical fiction. Looking back on the historical novels I've enjoyed in recent times, I can see that they all have some element of another genre or type of book I haven't yet got sick of - the ghost story, the unreliable narrator tale, something with just a sprinkling of fantasy. There was a time when I used to specifically seek out historical novels by contemporary authors, and would automatically be drawn to them over other genres, but somewhere along the way I started developing a preference for contemporary fiction, and I've now all but abandoned its historical counterpart. While there were numerous things I liked about The Miniaturist, I feel like it's a good example of the reasons for this shift in my tastes.

This has to be one of the most hyped debut novels I've ever read. Like Emma Healey's Elizabeth is Missing, which I also read and reviewed recently, The Miniaturist first started gathering buzz at the London Book Fair over a year ago. 11 publishers fought it out to get the rights to the novel, resulting in a six-figure deal for Burton in the UK alone, and more than 30 international deals for translation rights. I feel like I've been hearing about it forever; I've been reading rapturous reviews of advance copies since the beginning of this year. The description of the book that's been bandied about online since it was first announced is very enticing: it's 'a feminist golden-age fiction'; ' a sensational feat of storytelling for fans of Sarah Waters and Donna Tartt'. Additionally, Jessie Burton has a really interesting website on which she shares the story of her journey to getting The Miniaturist published and edited, as well as a lot of her research and input into things like the cover design - it's obvious the book has been a real labour of love. But what about the actual story itself?

Set in the late 17th century, this is the tale of Nella Brandt, née Oortman, who at the age of 18 is married off to a rich businessman and arrives in Amsterdam, where she is to live with her new husband - a stranger to her. Her new life is not what she expected. Her husband, Johannes, is rarely at home and seems uninterested in spending time with her, much less visiting her bed. The Brandt household is effectively ruled by his cold and intimidating sister, Marin, who Nella clashes with. And while the Brandts are affluent, the family's business dealings are being dragged down by a complicated, expensive negotiation over a warehouse full of sugar. In the midst of Nella's loneliness, confusion and disappointment, she is presented with an unusual wedding gift: a large dolls' house which is a perfect recreation of the Brandt house. Casting around for something to do (and a way to spend Johannes' money, and spite Marin), she engages a 'miniaturist' to create some figurines for the house. When they arrive, they are beautifully detailed, uncannily accurate, and perfect. But then the miniaturist starts sending more figures, ones Nella hasn't asked for, and she first thinks they are meant as a cruel joke, before becoming afraid that they are predicting the future, and that the mysterious, elusive miniaturist knows more about the Brandts than Nella herself.

In many ways, Nella is a typical heroine for a historical novel like this. Young, naive and inexperienced, she enters into a city and a household bigger and more frightening than anything she has known before. She is confounded by the behaviour of a husband she barely knows, and by an austere older woman who has dominion over the house. Yet she is also independent, smart and liberally minded - implausibly so, really, but of course she must be in order for the 21st-century reader to relate. The characterisation is skilful, and the people in this story are certainly believable, but at the same time I still felt they were basically stock characters, drawn from a template; just fleshed out more effectively than they sometimes are in less accomplished books. The plot unfolds in typically dramatic fashion, with several unexpected twists, a shocking death, illicit relationships and so on. Despite the title, this is less an examination of the mystery of the miniaturist (which is genuinely very intriguing, with well-handled tension) than a family/romantic drama. It's predictable in its unpredictability, which is not the author's fault; I just feel, personally, like I've read this sort of thing many times before. As with Elizabeth is Missing, I was primed for something remarkable and had to settle for something that was merely good.

The Miniaturist reminded me a lot of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites. While the latter book is extremely different in terms of theme and setting, I felt the same about both in that they are conventional tales with mass-market appeal dressed up in period costume, garlanded with literary flourishes and highbrow praise. In my review, I described Burial Rites as 'almost soapy', a description that could also be applied to this book. With both books, I found the speech, thoughts and sometimes the behaviour of the characters, and some parts of the narrative itself, to be too modern. For example, I found the reveal about Johannes far too obvious and graphic in the context of a story set in the 17th century, and I'm sure there's a more subtle and effective way this could have been done, particularly since it had already been heavily hinted at. Because something like this would never have been detailed in a story of this time, its presence (for me anyway) distorted the credibility of the whole piece.

Oh, and every time Otto got called 'Toot' I cringed so much. I can appreciate that the continued use of the nickname was supposed to show how Otto was accepted as a member of the family, and maybe it's just because I really don't like that word, but I found it far more patronising than endearing. I guess that could be deliberate - this is the 17th century, these characters can't be that enlightened... - but as the reader was obviously supposed to feel affection towards Otto, that would make for a slightly confusing message. I'm tempted to nitpick at some other details (the figurines are described as very small - the sugar loaf Agnes holds is 'no longer than an ant' - but Nella can clearly see the Jack doll on the doorstep from her bedroom window?) but this review already sounds far too negative about a book I really quite enjoyed. I suppose I'm using it as a bit of a punching bag for my issues with modern historical fiction in general.

Despite the fact that The Miniaturist has clearly been researched thoroughly and is well-written, I found it altogether too light a confection to be a truly satisfying read. It doesn't have anything like the scope of any book by Waters or Tartt, so those comparisons seem misplaced. I feel like Burton is a hugely talented writer but that this book just wasn't right for me. I found the rich description to be a highlight - I can still see the book's version of Amsterdam perfectly in my mind's eye - and I'd like to read something by Burton with a contemporary setting, something that transfers her ability to evoke atmosphere and character to a less melodramatic story. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on the author's future work, but this debut wasn't what I'd hoped.

I received an advance review copy of The Miniaturist from the publisher through NetGalley.

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