Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

the miniaturist

Jessie Burton had a good year in 2014. I mean, she’s probably still having a good time, sure, but to publish your debut and have it shoot to Waterstones’ Book of the Year in the same twelve-month period must be pretty exciting. I got hold of the book after seeing it in pride of place in Waterstones, and what a treat it was; be warned, spoilers ahead.

The novel is set in Amsterdam in the 1600s and follows 18-year-old protagonist Nella Brandt (née Oortman) as she prepares for a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. At the start of the book she moves into his home, but, much to her displeasure, joins his cutting sister Marin and two uninterested servants, Corneila and Otto. Poor Nella’s having a bad time. She doesn’t know her husband ahead of their marriage – it was arranged for his wealth, and he’s much older – and, understandably, she is fairly miserable at first, in a house she feels unwelcome in. Johannes pays her little to no attention, with the exception giving her a grand wedding gift: an enormous miniature (or dollhouse) of their house. Nella comforts herself by ordering figurines and furniture from a miniaturist, who, as you may have worked out already, turns out to be pretty important.

As Nella makes her first order she soon discovers that the creations that arrive are not only spookily accurate – supernaturally so – but also, in some cases, prophetic. From time to time she sees a blonde woman watching her before disappearing into crowds, or often thin air, and Nella comes to the conclusion that this must be the miniaturist, with an insight on Nella’s life that is entirely unprecedented.

What holds the novel together is the writing. It’s beautiful and original, with Burton creating imagery in an effortless way. The novel is full of surprises and keeps you on your toes, though the biggest twist is rather obvious from the get-go: Johannes, despite being a fairly kind and affectionate man, won’t touch his arranged wife or consummate their marriage, which is pretty mystifying for Nella – until she walks in on him with another man. With sodomy being illegal and punishable by death at the time, she has to conceal his secret along with the others in the household, three people she warms to in spite of the setbacks they endure (something the miniaturist is constantly hinting at, if not directly causing).

A lot of the book circulates around the miniaturist; she herself is spooky, gothic and downright compelling – at least at first. Unfortunately, the pay off is poor. I had expected her to be paranormal or perhaps non-existent, but her backstory is simple and, in a word, underwhelming. I would also have liked to have seen more of her as a prophetess. There’s an eerie section of the book where a figurine of Johannes’ spurned male lover is cast out of the window and Nella retrieves it, preceding a dramatic showdown where the man himself breaks into their home and torments them. I wanted this to be a taste of what was to come; I wanted to see more of the figurines as voodoo dolls, not just bits of wood to spook Nella.

The small, well-developed cast of characters and swift plot meant I was guaranteed a pleasurable read whenever I picked it up. Still, I was disappointed it didn’t develop into something more. There was a lot of untapped potential there, but perhaps it could have easily turned into something cheesy and altogether predictable had Burton gone down that route. I’ve noticed there are a few criticisms of the novel that say Nella grew in maturity a little too easily and become much more clever (and business-savvy) than her situation would rightly allow. I can’t speak for the business side, but I didn’t find her rapid maturity unrealistic. Nella is chucked in at the deep as soon as the book opens, and that kind of thing can make or break a person. I relate to that, so while Nella’s quick ascension from miserable young bride to head of the household (protecting the family’s political and financial interests) is not as believable as it might have been, it’s not the worst flaw I’ve spotted in a novel.

A small treat for me: my sister invited me to a talk in London where two authors, two publishers and an agent were speaking about the fiction industry on the whole – with Burton on the panel. It was similar to a Hay talk, in that the authors spoke about the creations of their books respectively and how they found the overall experience. It was pretty special to greet Burton during the drinks and nibbles after the talk and to tell her how much I liked the book – plus, her advice was inspiring. Give it a few years and I hope to be on a panel like that – hopefully not there to discuss the worst ever plummet in book sales.

Goodreads review: four stars. One knocked off the full five for the way it rapidly fizzled out, but otherwise, a pretty perfect book.

[Coming next: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan]

 

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Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah

So Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is kind of a big shot. I’d say there were three things that propelled her towards becoming a household name: her bestseller Half of a Yellow Sun; her famous TED talk on feminism; and the fact global superstar Beyonce chose to play out an extract from said talk in her own 2014 anthem, Flawless. I mean, a lot of people (myself included) can now quote that speech off the top of their heads thanks to the exposure from Flawless (‘we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller…’ etc) and Beyonce has been known to write it out in full behind her during her live performances, particularly the closing line of the extract: ‘feminist: a person who believe in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes’. You can’t pay for that kind of exposure. I often wonder what Adichie thinks of the rather extreme spotlight, but her publishers are surely rubbing their hands in glee; last year they released a small book of feminist essays penned by Adichie that flew off the shelves.

On reading Americanah, my initial reaction was to compare it to We Need New Names. There are clear similarities between the two novels; in both, a female protagonist is escaping from an African country rife with political tension and moving to the USA to study abroad, observing American life (and African-American life) from an outsider’s perspective. In fact, Americanah kind of filled the hole I had left from We Need New Names; in the latter I felt the book ended too soon, I wanted to know more about the protagonist’s life in the States. Americanah successfully fleshed that out for me (though, obviously, in the eyes of a different character).

Americanah follows two characters through the course of their lives: Ifemelu, the main protagonist, and her childhood sweetheart, Obinze. Both born and raised in Nigeria, they grow up together and part ways to explore separate countries – Ifemelu heading the USA, Obinze going to the UK. As a result of their background and the colour of their skin, they both face alienation in their respective countries, but have vastly different racial experiences on either side of the pond. In the US, Ifemelu is dealing with the stigma and consequences of living as a racial outsider in America, where social segregation is still very much in place, while Obinze is living in a state of paranoia as an illegal immigrant in England, struggling for money and with the constant fear of being discovered and deported back to Nigeria.

It was interesting to read that there wasn’t the same racial disapproval in the UK as there was in the USA – though I was half-expecting that, to be honest. Ifemelu has a white boyfriend for a section of the book and I found it fascinating to read how her fictional American friends reacted to an interracial couple; this is something I find interesting in real life, too (forgive me for my vast generalisation of both Americans and Brits). Take a recent, well-publicised example: Robert Pattinson got engaged to talented singer FKA Twigs, yet many of his American fans commented in disbelief that he had the audacity to marry a ‘black chick’, as if it’s something surprising or shocking; I don’t feel you see the same reaction to interracial couples in the UK, particularly speaking as a child of an interracial couple myself. I found it utterly perplexing, in Pattinson’s case.

But back to the book. By and large, it was a huge insight on how black people are treated in Western white-dominated countries, whether they are born into that country or not. As I probably implied, I enjoyed the satire of America, but felt particularly thoughtful about my own country, England. At times, the racial comments felt a little too obvious. Often they were woven into her characters’ lives, at other times the book would write out great explanatory chunks of Ifemelu’s blog about her own racial experiences, which felt a bit too stark for me. Yet Adichie addresses the idea of racial commentary always needing to be ‘subtle’, arguing (through a character who is a writer) that all too often black writers are accused of not being subtle enough in fiction, when in real life, it’s anything but. I find it hard to write about this book and comment on her messages without sounding like the kind of character she is mocking: an entitled white person making basic assumptions on race without truly experiencing it. I want to say it changed my frame of mind – I truly think it did – but I don’t know how patronising that sounds.

Alongside the general commentary, there is a very charming love story between the two characters; I often wondered if it was semi-autobiographical. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the book, but I thoroughly recommend reading it. Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar-winning star of 12 Years a Slave) supposedly obtained the rights of produce and star in an adaptation, so I look forward to that immensely. On Goodreads, it got five stars from me. Beautifully written, thoughtful and captivating – what more do you need?

[Coming next: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton]

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We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

We

Yes! I knew I’d get round to reading this one eventually. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, when it comes to dystopian fiction, I always think of there being the big three – this one, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. People tend to be more familiar with the latter two than We, but it can take credit for both – Orwell admits he was directly inspired by We, and whilst Huxley denied his own connection with the novel, Orwell reckoned he must have been lying.

We is a fairly short book, only a little over 150 pages – more of a novella, really. As you might have guessed, it’s set in a future dystopian society where humans have been trained to work as machine-like cogs and no longer have privacy, freedom, or creative responses to anything. Our narrator, D-503, seems fairly content with his life as a mathematician who gets his own emotional fulfilment from the beauty of logic and numbers. Yes, D-503 is his name – in his world citizens are no longer granted names but are instead labelled with letters and numbers (consonants for men, vowels for women). D is the builder of a space shuttle called the INTEGRAL, a vehicle designed to spread their regime across the universe. He lives in an environment devoid of any privacy; the residents live in glass walls, only allowed to lower the blinds when they’re having pre-approved sex with pre-approved partners (like Brave New World, sex is carefully controlled and natural reproduction is prohibited). There are also figures who watch over assigned individuals who D thinks of as ‘guardian angels’ – it’s obvious that this kind of constant surveillance was the precursor to Orwell’s ode to CCTV, although Zamyatin wouldn’t have been familiar with that kind of invasive technology in 1921.

We is presented as D-503’s written records of his life, as if he is writing a journal of everything that happens to him. His fictional audience is the extraterrestial presence that the INTEGRAL might come into contact with, or future readers who might not be familiar with his society (would that be us, then?) so he explains various bits of terminology along the way. I’m not always a fan of the diary method of writing stories (do the narrators really remember that much detail, every line of dialogue, to jot down in a journal?) but it worked well enough in We.

As mentioned, D is happy with his life – until he meets I-330, a woman who seems to naturally rebel against the oppressive environment and who causes D to experience an emotion very close to love. This is a typical dystopian idea, being liberated through love – in fact I-330 reminded me very much of Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s Julia, the classic rebel below the waist. Like others from the Big Three and sci-fi works in general, it had a spooky knack of predicting future technologies and developments – in this case, space travel. I had to remind myself that it was written in the 1920s, such was the foresight behind it. It was perhaps ripe for more action, in my opinion; there’s a very tense scene when one of D’s watchers suspects him of writing about illegal exploits (which is exactly what he’s doing, of course), and he has to quickly write a fake memoir that is snatched out of his hands, while he sits on his own records to avoid them being discovered (the only way he can hide them in his glass world). I wished there were more moments like that, and perhaps more of D-503’s realisation and acceptance of his own rebellion.

Why do dystopian novels use themes like love and human connection to liberate their characters from oppressive worlds? Is it because it’s such a strong theme for readers to identify with? We connect with the characters when they want to rebel – particularly as, reading about their lives from an outsider’s perspective, we feel horrified by the world they live in. Yet other forms of love – familial love, for example – are not often touched upon. Although come to think of it, out of the Big Three it’s really only Nineteen Eighty-Four that doesn’t focus on that. Brave New World has Linda’s love for her son, John, and in turn John’s own desire to find his biological father, and We has O-90 defying the regime with her desire to conceive a child, in particular one with the man she loves (D). Yet romantic love is often given precedence as the main cause of rebellion; maybe it’s just slightly more compelling to read about.

Like Brave New World, the rigid society in We filled me with the same unsettling uncertainty whether or not this kind of society would, in fact, be more productive at protecting ourselves as a species and protecting the planet. Perhaps it wasn’t QUITE as attractive (if that’s the right word?) as Brave New World‘s society, but it was pretty close. Once again, it brings up the age-old question of freedom vs. security. You can’t have both, so which do you want? It’s this message that, again and again, draws me to dystopian fiction – and crops in real life all too often.

Goodreads: five stars. Glad to have ticked the Big Three off my list.

[Coming next: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie]

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