Archive for June, 2015

It is Sunday night.

Today was warm, sunny, a little humid on the south western coast of England. And yet, standing in that sun, warmed by it, with this book open I am transported to a frozen canal sides of Amsterdam over the winter of 1686.

And, as I write this, I’d love an olie-koecken. Or gingerbread, even in the forbidden shape of a person.

Such is the evocative power of Burton’s prose in this highly-praised debut novel.


There is something extraordinary about the way Burton creates the world of Amsterdam: its wealth, its precarious geography, its pettiness, its hypocrisy. The tyranny of the church in an almost pagan desire to appease the sea. The suspiciousness and envy of neighbours. The innate xenophobia against the black servant Otto.

There is also a sensuality in the prose in the sights, sounds and tastes of the city – particularly taste as it revolves in large part around a shipment of sugar and fears that excessive sweetness may endanger the soul. And herrings which, assuredly, are good for the soul.

The story itself centres around eighteen-year-old Petronella (Nella) Brandt, arriving unaccompanied at the home of her new husband, Johannes. She is testily received by two other women: Marin, Brandt’s spinster (for wont if another word) sister; and Cornelia, a servant. The rivalries and tensions and secrets and shared confidences and growing respect between these three women within the nine rooms of their home are the heart of the novel.

Or one of its hearts.

There’s also the matter of the eponymous miniaturist whose presence hovers over the novel enigmatically. Despite her almost complete absence from the novel and absolute silence within it.

She is introduced firstly when Johannes buys an extravagant albeit idiosyncratic gift for his young wife: a miniature of their own house. Angered by the perceived childishness of the gift, believing it a mockery of her lack of power in the house dominated by her sister-in-law, Nella engages the miniaturist to create items which she had been forbidden by Marin. Further unasked for items arrive with them – and continue to arrive – bearing an uncanny likeness and hinting towards something prophetic and lyrical. Or something underhand and prosaic: spies and bribes and listening at doorways. Letters go missing but somehow find their recipients. The miniatures change in unusual ways foreshadowing events. Things that shouldn’t have fallen from pockets somehow do. But then, we’ve all had that happen to us, haven’t we?

It was such a delicately drawn line between realism and a hint of more.

And of course, we discover that the miniaturist is a woman: free and (shockingly) living independently of father, husband or guild; whereas Nella, Marin and Cornelia are trapped in their home and with each other and dependent on Johannes. She is blonde in the dark-haired streets of Amsterdam. Her sign is the symbol of the sun. An elegant counterpoint to Nella.

And finally, there’s Johannes: handsome, endearing, distant. There’s an element of the thriller in his parts of the book – and a really very effective trial scene. For a book which was very female centric, Johannes never became either a tyrant or a figure of ridicule and all the women, I think, loved him.

Possibly not the best husband in the world but a good man. In a world which was less tolerant than ours.

If I have a concern about the book, that is perhaps it: the Brandts seemed just a little bit more tolerant and modern than quite fitted with the era.

In case you were wondering olie-koecken were a form of doughnut, a yeast batter, fried and covered in that sinfully dangerous sugar.

Why are so few book covers yellow? This looks gorgeous! Like a literary bumblebee. I have to confess, the only reason I picked this up was the cover – despite the advice parents give their children the world over. That and Waterstone’s promotions. But I’m really glad I did because it’s a powerful, haunting, human and compelling novel.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Peize in 2014, the novel revolves around three children. Two of whom are missing. All of whose share one story.

We enter the story in 1996 when our narrator, Rosemary Cooke, is at college. I was at University and socially awkward between 1992-6, so there were elements of Rosemary’s life which struck a chord! Although generally my experience lacked the drugs, arrests and ventriloquists’ dummies which Rosemary had to navigate.

We first meet Rosemary witnessing and accidentally becoming embroiled in a scene (as my mother would say) or a fracas (as a police officer might describe it) initiated by another student, Harlow Fielding. As a result, both are arrested. An unlikely friendship between the outwardly reserved Rosemary and overly dramatic Harlow.

This friendship, though, is not the story; nor is this incident the start of the story. Over the course of the novel, we hear the story of Rosemary’s childhood focussing on her aged five, dispatched to her grandparents house for a week.

Or rather the stories. We receive the consciously modified and edited version given to Harlow as a safe and practiced narration, crafted for effect. But the same story is retold with the edited sections removed and we learn that her sister, Fern, disappeared whilst Rosemary was away. We hear memories, possibly reliable and possibly not; recovered memories. In 1996, having done his own disappearing act, Lowell visits Rosemary and we hear new accounts of the same event from his point of view.

The structure of the story, starting in college but circling the events of fifteen years previously could have become tedious and dull, or confusing,  with a lesser author or a less engaging narrator. Rosemary was delightful! Smart, damaged, insecure, funny, self-aware. A remarkable guide on the journey that the novel represents. The novel does explore these layers of memory, consciously or subconsciously shaped into different stories. And it does chime with my own experience and understanding of memory. Do I feel like I know the truth about Fern’s disappearance? No. Did I feel that the novel was strikingly experimental in style? Not really (compare Eleanor Catton’s novel The Rehearsal). Did I feel her use of language was lyrical and poetic? Again no (compare The History Of The Rain by Niall Williams).

Do I feel as if I’ve met a real person in Rosemary? Yes. What more could I ask for in a novel?

For me, at times, the novel did veer a little towards the didactic, the moral lesson of non-human animal rights. There were occasions when we were, effectively receiving science or philosophy lectures. Theories of Mind. Mirror Tests. The experiments of Winthrop Kellogg and Gua. The Animal Liberation Front.

I didn’t mind those moments for two reasons: they were delivered unerringly in Rosemary’s voice and entirely suited her character and history; and they were genuinely quite interesting studies of animal behaviours. And these scientific expositions were balanced with frequent literary allusion and references too including A Tale Of Two Cities (Ahhh! Madame Defarge!) and Thomas More’s Utopia. It really was a very literary novel.

And at no point did these expositions detract from the central grief at the heart of the novel and of Rosemary. Her grief at the double loss of her sister and brother.

I did want more Harlow, though. She exploded into the book. Several times. She broke boundaries. Seduced men carelessly. Stole. But she was engaging as hell! Oh well. Maybe any more time spent in her company would have made her tiresome.

I now have a choice. There is a huge ‘reveal’ perhaps 75 pages into the book. You may already be aware of it from other reviews. I think I’ll choose not to say what it is. But it may fundamentally change your response to the Cooke family. It may not. Enjoy reaching it!