Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

his-bloody-project

Authenticity is often what we look for in a book. Is the setting authentic? Are my characters authentic? Is my voice authentic? Is my lexis authentic? It doesn’t take much sometimes to pull a reader from a novel and inauthenticity can do it. I’ve still got concerns about the use of the f-word in Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some writers embrace otherness and the inauthentic to create something lyrical and beautiful. Others like Jim Crace’s Harvest and Gift Of Stones are credible and authentic but we never lose track of the fact that these are novels.

Gramme Macrae Burnet goes the other way: His Bloody Project drips with authenticity to the point where it blurs the boundaries of fiction and history. Purporting to be a collection of found historical documents, found when 

“In the spring of 2014 I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Trump’ Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross…”

In addition to this preface, Burnet embeds his novel in reality: the villages of Applecross and Culduie are real; the criminologist James Bruce Thomson is real; the grim and ungenerous land is real; the daily trials and hard work required to eke a living from that land is utterly credible and authentic. The temptation is to accept the historical authenticity as fact, to turn to Google or Wikipedia to discover which characters are actually real!

On 12th April 1869, Roderick Macrae – inhabitant of Culduie in the far reaches of Scotland – killed Lachlan Mackenzie – known as Lachlan Broad. Murdered him and his sister and his infant son. Bludgeoned them with a croman and flaughter. Don’t worry, a glossary is provided in the novel.

No spoilers here: we learn that in the opening pages of this Man Booker shortlisted novel. Unlike most crime fiction (and that – along with other things – is what this is), there is never any doubt as to who committed the crime: Macrae is discovered covered in blood and admitting the deed. It is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. And perhaps an exploration of how impossible a task it is to know the contents of another man’s heart or mind. Because Macrae’s only defence is his own insanity.

And I’m not sure we ever receive any answer: the witness statements and testimony and expert opinion and especially Macrae’s own purportedly personal account all testify to the impossibility of knowing. They confuse and contradict and complement each other throughout.

There is so much to admire here: the wealth of narrative voices, all of which are again authentic; it’s a compelling exploration of the deprivation of the crofters’ life; it’s an examination of the misery that an abuse of power can create. It is comical in the second half’s account of the trial, and absurd – especially when Macrae’s father visits the factor to discover and inspect the regulations under which his tenancy is governed, having been challenged for breaking them, and is told that

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit.”

It is a fascinating, although ultimately bleak and harrowing glimpse into history and a thoughtful game between Burnet and the reader exploring that boundary between history and story. And also a cracklingly good read behind the literary mind games.

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Detective fiction is a funny thing. The moment of most conflict and drama generally takes place outside the narrative, often before detective has been called in. The narrative arc is pretty formulaic: scenes are inspected, witnesses interviewed, discrepancies explored. And the conclusion is pretty predicable: the culprit is identified and society made safe from him or her. And they can become self-parodic: the body count in the various villages around Midsomer and Cabot Cove and St Mary’s Mead; the stereotypes of the detectives – the lonely genius of Holmes and Morse, the cantankerous Inspector Frost, the rebellious Luthor; the implausibility of the amateur sleuth.

But they are beloved!

And I love them.

They are the form of writing where the relationship between the reader and writer is at it’s most active and mutual. It is a dance, a tango; it is a battle of wits; it is a running joke. The reader is constantly building his own narratives, reconstructing the clues presented to him, re-evaluating the interviews. We judge and weigh up both the characters and the writer: we know that the early obvious suspect is a red herring with another 300 pages to read or another hour to watch.

And this book is a hymn to these classic, golden age cozy novels and their modern television counterparts – perhaps unsurprisingly as Horowitz has written for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and written two new “official” Holmes novels as well as taken on Bond.

The novel is, as they say, a book in two parts: the first half is a presented as the ninth Atticus Pünd novel by Alan Conway – echoes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot abound in Pünd: dapper, clever, gentlemanly, foreign and a consultant to various police forces in 1950s England; the second part is a contemporary investigation by editor Susan Ryeland into the death of Conway himself and a search for the missing final chapters of his book.

Ryeland as a narrator is herself steeped in detective fiction and the novel is a delightful homage to and pastiche of the cozy detective novel – eschewing the darker notes that have grown with the growth of “nordic noir”.

Whilst well crafted and engagingly written, it is not a deep portrayal of character: Susan as a character and narrator was a little two-dimensional and her relationship with Andreas was not terribly fleshed out; the characters within the Atticus Pund novel had no more depth. In both parts, the characters felt like little more than chesspieces moved around and into place by the writer.

And there did seem to be an awful lot of summarising and of recapping of the information given in the previous couple of hundred pages which, ironically, could have been edited out quite happily. And the opening chapters which methodically showed every main character’s reaction to the first death in Conway’s novel felt somewhat formulaic and by-the-numbers.

Horowitz played with a range of different voices in the novel: Conway’s narrative voice in the Pünd novels, his true voice and his somewhat pretentious derivative literary voice; we hear snippets and extracts from these and from his sister and a rival would-be writer. It did come across as a little smug in parts, a little too self-consciously clever. Did he name his author Alan Conway after the conman who impersonated Stanley Kubrick? Did he rely on plant names for his characters in the same way that Susanna Ryeland, working for Charles Clover, derided Conway for doing? Invented interviews between Horowitz and an author who doesn’t exist promoting a book that Horowitz wrote himself…

It’s a great, fun read and a cosy winter’s treat, like an open fire and mulled wine. But it’s no literary masterpiece.

 

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This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.

 

H Hawk

I mostly read fiction: an escapist flight from the same rigours of the real world – work, a beautiful but demanding three-year old – that have kept me from keeping up-to-date with my reviews!

So this book has languished on my kindle to-be-read pile for a while. A pretty long while. Which just goes to show what I know!

Because this is a beautiful and haunting read.

It is a book of many things, many parts: an account of Macdonald’s attempts to train and hunt with a goshawk; a pastoral love letter; a biography of T. H. White – he of The Once and Future King fame – and his clumsy attempts to train and hunt his own goshawk a hundred years earlier; an achingly painful personal account of Macdonald’s response to her father’s death, which prompted her to seek out the goshawk originally. There were times when the book was so openly honest that it almost felt awkward and intrusive to be reading it. Reading it is, genuinely, like watching Macdonald suffer a nervous breakdown in front of your eyes: fascinating, moving and hauntingly powerful.

Macdonald is an academic at the University of Cambridge and this shows in her writing: as you’d expect, it is erudite and considered and researched. And replete with technical terms such as jesses and mantling and austringer and bating, an entire new lexical field to play in!

What I hadn’t expected was the beauty and power and lyricism of her prose. It is a much quoted passage but as an example, consider this:

In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail.

Or, when she first sees her own hawk

Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

As a writer, Macdonald is exquisite and this book is as a prose poem as much as it belongs to any of the other genres mentioned above.

I’m not sure why it should have fallen like this, but in my reading, I followed this book – in which grief, loss of a father and birds intermingle – with Max Porter’s Grief is The Thing With Feathers  in which grief, the loss of a wife and mother and a crow intermingle.

It was, to say the least, an interesting juxtaposition.

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This was … not what I expected.

A band of travellers in the England of 1348, travelling and telling tales to each other over the course of their journeys. The reviews and comments on it make an obvious but – to my mind – highly suspect assertion that this somehow a re-imagining of The Canterbury Tales. In fairness, I don’t think the author Karen Maitland makes that assertion. But many reviewers did and it is in no way a re-imagining of Chaucer.

What Maitland offers instead is a disreputable rabble – liars by profession or necessity or self-delusional – thrown together and roaming the cities, villages, forests and marshes of England. There is an aimlessness about the journey – which has no end point save to avoid the plague – which seems to reflect in the meandering structure of the novel. The opening hundred pages or so chronicle the coming together of an apparently random assortment of nine characters; the final hundred pages finally gets its teeth into becoming a psychological thriller; the middle three hundred pages … meanders.

Sure, we get to see a lot of Maitland’s historical research thrown back at us: details of a variety of cons and tricks and unpleasant menial tasks. But I never felt fully drawn into the world. It felt a little too much like Madame Tussaud’s or Warwick Castle for my liking: somehow it was as if those historical details were waxworks and contrived. As if the history was the end in itself rather than serving the needs of the plot.

And the characters were all rather bleak. Our narrator is Camelot,  a peddlar of relics using his lies to sell ‘hope’. His company is swollen initially by Joffrey and Rodrigo, musicians, and then the travelling magician, Zofield; a pregnant woman and her husband, Adela and Osmund; a waif like child Narigorm, whose white hair and pale skin mark her out as strongly as Camelot’s missing eye, and her nurse Patience; and most bizarrely Cygnus, a boy whose arm is in fact a swan’s wing. I mean, what? A swan’s wing? And everyone just accepts that as a fact? Really?

Not many of the characters were actually all that likeable: Zofield in particular was abhorrent decrying Jews, vampires, women, children and homosexuals with equal vehemence and venom. I mean seriously, why did these people put up with him? Joffrey was a whiney little boy who needed a good slap. His story was possibly the most interesting but one of the least developed. Patience was no more than a silent two-dimensional character. In fact, did Maitland give any of her female characters the richness they deserve? The richness we deserve as a reader?

I could go on.

I did quite like Camelot but his easy acceptance of almost everything he encountered did jar. There was something very modern in his sensibilities which jarred with the setting. I fear that, however unpleasant Zofield was, his was a more typical depiction of attitudes in the fourteenth century.

Having said this, it did keep me engaged and interested through the whole novel although some of the chapter transitions were very abrupt and jarring. Part of the reason for this was the narration by David Thorpe, whose voice had a lovely authentic northernness to it which was wonderfully refreshing. But there were perhaps half a dozen moments when a chapter would end on a slow heavy ominous note and Thorpe would leap in with “Chapter X” in a jaunty voice, full of cheer.

There are two moments I want to highlight for you. The birth of Oswin and Adela’s baby was probably the strongest chapter in the novel – the claustrophobia of the incomplete chapel in which it occurs, the dire warnings and portents surrounding it, the sheer physicality of the task.

In contrast, the final chapter – with its heavily signposted revelation – was a terrible ending. I think Maitland was aiming for a cliffhanger of suspense – like the phone ringing at the end of An Inspector Calls, with which it actually bears many similarities – but it just falls completely flat.

So, in conclusion, I have reservations – mainly that it’s overlong and its characterisation- but I did get gripped and I did enjoy the more psychological thriller aspect. I’d probably read another by her. It was, after all, only her second novel.

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Hmm mmmmmm.

Some books I’m glad I read before reading any reviews. What would I have learned? It’s set in the Stone Age. Instantly, I’d be put off. I’d be imagining Raquel Welsh in a fur bikini – not a bad thing in itself – and all the other nonsense from one Million Years BC or Ice Age. Or Clan of the Cave Bear which I just couldn’t get into when I tried (admittedly years ago).

And Gift Of Stones is so much more than that! Beautiful and evocative. And lyrical in its careful and sparse prose.

Crace – and I’ve only read one other by him, the Man Booker nominated Harvest which I reviewed in February 2014 – seems to be drawn to the ends of eras: Harvest focused on the end of the agrarian period of English history with the Enclosure Acts; here, the focus is on the end of the Stone Age and the arrival of the Bronze Age. The devastation of a community before the sweeping tide of history.

The plot itself is remarkably economical: a boy from a village which crafts flint tools is injured and loses an arm. Being unable to work flint with one arm, he becomes restless and wanders away from the village one day, meeting a woman and her daughter on the heath. Each time he leaves the village, he returns with exotic tales of ships and seas and heaths and geese and women. On one occasion, he brings the woman and child back with him.

There’s also a wonderful symmetry to the book which opens and closes with an arrow shot by a horseman.

I also find that it’s the mark of a great book – as opposed to a good read perhaps – that I end up photographing passages and posting them on Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook. And this book has a lot of quotable material in it! And, as the main character- the father of the narrator – is a story teller, many of them are focused on the craft of storytelling itself.

I mean, we could start with this one

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Why tell the truth when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh – and cough – and roll her eyes? People are like stone. You strike them right, they open up like shells.

Or perhaps

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Salute the liars – they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.

Or maybe

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The paradox is this – we do love lies. The truth is dull and half asleep. But lies are nimble spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.

And if lying is a craft, Jim Crace is an experienced and wonderful master craftsman!

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I am coming to adore Frances Hardinge!

I’ve only read this and Cuckoo Song to be fair, but there’s something about her
imagination and her writing which chimes with me: dark, intensely personal, yet somehow mythic at the same time. She captures a sense of wonder,  of terror, of awe which is simultaneously so childlike and so mature.

And she does write girls who are struggling to find their own identity really well!

Here, Hardinge branches away from contemporary fantasy to historic fiction with a fantastical edge. Perhaps magic realist. But not quite. She’s a hard writer to pigeonhole into a genre – as if that is ever a meaningful thing to do in any event! Anyway, the novel opens with Faith Sunderley consoling her brother Howard on a ferry to the island of Vale as her father,  Reverend Erasmus Sunderley – famed naturalist – and her mother Myrtle busy themselves elsewhere.

We are transported whole-heartedly into this provincial Victorian post-Darwinian world. Science strives against religion; women strive against patriarchy and each other; children strive to find themselves. Reputation and courage and a coquettish sexuality become the currency with which her characters compete.

The move to the island is shrouded in mystery for a large portion of the book, as is a mysterious plant brought along by Erasmus.

And we are introduced to the microcosm of the island: phrenologists,  photographers and prelates; scheming wives, a hint of a love that then did not dare say its name, ratting and archeology; the faithful, the faithless and the superstitious. All the details – especially perhaps those deliciously macabre details of the mocked up post-death photographs in a world without PhotoShop – were so utterly convincing.

And evocative.

Hints and teases of layers of symbolism lay behind almost every image in the book. Nothing ever pinned down by a clumsy exposition. The feeling I was left with is that, like the lie tree itself, these layers – perhaps these leaves – of subtle whispery layers of meaning would burn away with too much sunlight. Enjoy the teasing.  Enjoy the evocation. Don’t try to pin down a single meaning because you’ll lose so much more!

The mystery persists in the book until, that is, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderley dies and Faith discovers his notebooks and the fantastical truth: the plant feeds off lies and its fruits contain visions of truths. Her father’s big lie was a fraudulent skeleton of a nephilim; the truth he sought was of the nature of God and man.

Big topics for a purportedly young adult book!

The novel is – in part – a detective mystery seeking to uncover the truth of Erasmus’ death. It is a meditation on the power of narrative. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a multifaceted jewel. A pomegranate of a book.

There was so much to love in it! But what particularly moved me was Faith’s reconciliation with her mother: distance and coldness became active disgust on her father’s death; but, as Faith became more aware of the constraints put on women by the patriarchy, there was a genuine mutual respect and warmth between the two.

It is a delight of a book and deservedly won the Costa prize this year and – all things being equal – should garner a clutch of other prizes too.

  Oh I’m in two minds about this book. 

I so wanted to like it.  A alternate history world in which the borders between reality and books is flexible and malleable. Who would love to pop to Wuthering Heights for a cup of tea with Nelly Dean? Or stroll through the 100 Acre Wood? Or play hide-and-seek in the Garden of Eden (who’s going to find you behind that apple tree?) for an afternoon? 

You could pop into Fifty Shades and inform Ms. Steele what consent actually means.

And you have to dodge Baconians on the street seeking to convert your views on Shakespeare’s authorship. A world where entertainment includes coin-fed Shakespearean soliloquy dispensers and wholly audience-participation Shakespeare plays with the atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

And you can own dodos in Fforde’s world. I mean, dodos!  Because genetic splicing is a thing. 

And time travel. 

And vampires and werewolves. 

I’m sure many people would find the range of alternative structures thrown into this mix quirky or witty – which each one is individually – I mean, book worms which crawl around and eat prepositions and excrete apostrophes or, if they’re stressed, capitalisation – the range of ideas, concepts and conceits thrown in, to me, felt confused. Almost as if Fforde wrote himself into plot holes and had to go back to insert a random new feature in order to provide him with a way out. Or woke up with an idea and the words “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if…” on his lips. 

What we’re presented with is essentially a crime caper: the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen and Thursday Next is called in to investigate. We discover increasingly shady departments of the Special Ops forces of which Next is a member; the sinister Goliath corporation manipulating the investigation, a subplot involving Next’s love life and her time in the Crimean War. 

In addition to the confused gamut of tropes, there were more issues which irked me, as a writer myself. 

[It is a new thing to self-identify as a writer for me… but it felt lovely saying it!]

The other issues. Oh yes. For a book so aware of the limitations of the first person narrative (it actual is a significant plot device towards the end, the fact that Jane Eyre is itself first person), the novel failed to either give Thursday a convincing narrative voice or to remain in its own first person narrative. We see numerous scenes from outside Thursday’s point of view: whole chapters took place miles away from Thursday; some chapters alternated from Thursday’s and an omniscient narrative point of view within the chapter. 

And to have your first-person narrator randomly look at herself in a mirror just to describe her for the reader? Really?! I’d expect that from kids at school. What was even the point to tell me that she was 

somewhat ordinary features…. Her hair was a plain mousey colour and of medium length …

What do I learn of her from that? Really? Were her looks a plot point? No. 

And sometimes Fforde did try. After a botched arrest attempt, we learn what happened from Thursday’s interview with internal affairs. That’s okay. That’s a good idea: you can create the emotion of the protagonist directly; you can deliver half-truths and dramatic irony and unreliable narrators. Or, you can do what Fforde does, and simply retell the story in the same bland voice that Thursday’s narrative voice has. 

And our antagonist, Acheron Hades. With a name like that, how could Fforde have expected him to be anything other than a cardboard cutout villain. Imbued with a range of unexplained powers. Powers which are not shared by anyone else. 

Let’s have a look at Fforde’s naming system. Thursday Next is odd; Acheron Hades is too obvious and blunt; Jack Schitt is childishly scatological; but minor characters like Millon de Floss or Felix Tabularasa have sparks of fun and wit. 

Maybe I’m being too harsh on Fforde – or his editor, in all likelihood. A stronger editorial control could have made this a much better book. Maybe, though, just maybe, there’s a really clever developed story arc which will tie everything together over the rest of the series. Maybe I’m too foolish to recognise meta-literary post-modern irony and see them as a lack of control over the narrative. 

Maybe. 

I will probably give one more in the series a go. Just in case. 

If you liked this, try:

Mark Hodder, The Curious Case of Spring-Heeled Jack

Kim Newman, Anno Dracula

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

  Again, a gorgeous cover here and a decent read. 
This is the second in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent trilogy and it continues the adventures of Mrs Isabella Camherst – still to meet Lord Trent or to be named a lady – from the first book, A Natural History Of Dragons. Much of what I praised in the first book re-appears here, but not all. 

I have more hesitation this time round – although I’ll admit that that may be caused by how quickly I read this after A Natural History, or perhaps pressing distractions of a personal nature. But mainly, I felt a lack of dragons!

Allow me to summarise what we do get in the novel before lamenting what we lack. 

We pick up Isabella Camherst three years or so after the first book, in which her husband Jacob died and, at the end of which, we learn she is pregnant. Her son is named Jacob after his father and promptly taken on by nannies whilst Isabella distances herself from him. Even more so than might be expected in this Regency-esque world. To the extent, in fact, that she flees to the continent of Eriga – a thinly disguised Africa just as Vystrana was a thinly veiled Russia. 

The expedition arrives and potters about a bit somewhat aimlessly. It seemed poorly conceived. Maybe Lord Hilford, who funded but did not join it, is getting a little vague in his senescence. Eventually, however, the group are given a task by the oba in whose palace they’ve been whiling away their hours: descend to the rain jungle / swampland of the neighbouring Mouleen area and bring back dragon eggs. More time was whiled away. Only a couple of dragons were seen. 

What this was really was a study of the society of the Moulish (with whom we spent most time) and of tensions and conflict between the somewhat mercenary Scirlanders and various other tribes using the Mouleen swamps to further their own ambitions. At least once, Lady Trent informed me that she should not be distracted by her natural history of dragons and meditations on their life cycle when her reader was more interested in the army she’d encountered. 

No. 

I was not more interested!

The book meandered a little in the first half and rushed towards the end but it was a perfectly decent read. 

We retained Lady Trent’s narration and her voice remained convincing, entertaining and engaging throughout.  As a character, as Isabella Camherst, I felt she benefitted from the extra years and was more credible than the girl in the first book who kept on coming up with the answer. We added Nathalie, Lord Hilford’s wayward engineering granddaughter who, to be honest, didn’t really add much to the mix. 

What I missed with this entrance to the series – in addition to the direction of the first – was the tenderness of the marriage between Jacob and Isabella. They were lovely together in A Natural History. And the relationship or friendship with Tom Wilker wasn’t enough to replace it. 

I don’t want to sound too down on this book: it’s a decent and well-written thing. It is good. It does perhaps suffer from the typical (stereotypical?) middle-book syndrome so I’m hoping that the third book lifts the trilogy.  What am I hoping for from Voyage Of The Basilisk? I hope Jacob (junior) will be brought into the book properly – if the chronology holds he’s probably about four or five at the end of Tropic of Serpents and there may be a delay of years before Basilisk so he could go on the expedition. It seems mean to sideline him utterly! I hope we meet Lord Trent – assuming that Isabella becomes Lady Trent through marriage which is, I suppose, not guaranteed – and I hope that their relationship is given time to develop … Actually no, ignore that. I hope we meet him and some form of relationship develops, but that the romantic relationship doesn’t even begin. 

  

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.