Category Archives: Gothic fiction

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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Throwback Thursday! Dracula – Bram Stoker

dracula-cover-2

Welcome to my first NON-dystopian Throwback Thursday post! Don’t worry, there will be plenty more of those to come, but for now we’re focusing on a very different kind of frightening and miserable tale – a horror story, to be exact. Arguably THE greatest horror story that’s ever been told (or one of them, at least): Bram Stoker’s chilling vampire tale, Dracula.

Dracula is possibly the only book I’ve ever read that genuinely terrified me (at least, since I outgrew Goosebumps). The creepy book cover didn’t help – I took the liberty of including it in this blog post, so you can look and shudder with me. The image is not really Count Dracula – it looks closer to the cinematic image of Nosferatu, an unauthorised adaptation of Dracula, renamed in the attempt to dodge copyright laws – but it portrays the chilling nature of the novel, so I’ll go with it.

To sum up… Dracula is told through various diary excerpts from three characters: Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor; John Seward, a doctor; and Mina Harker (née Murray), Jonathan’s wife. Each character has a different perspective on the strange, supernatural events unrolling around them: Jonathan is reeling from a visit to a castle in Transylvania to help a count purchase property in England, where he experienced some very horrible events; Dr Seward is perplexed by a patient of his acting very strangely; and Mina is watching her friend suffer from a mysterious illness that seems to drain her of blood and leaves her with tiny puncture marks on her neck. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but critics imply that this shifting of perspective is a powerful feature of horror fiction – if multiple characters experience the same terrifying phenomena, the reader immediately assumes that there’s no way one of them can be lying.

The novel opens with Jonathan’s description of his time in Transylvania, before the plot switches to England (Whitby, to be exact) where a ship has washed ashore. From there, all hell breaks loose. Soon Van Helsing, a man with knowledge of and experience with vampires, spots the signs and comes to help. With his guidance, a group band together to take down Count Dracula. Of course, Dracula isn’t too happy about this, and it soon becomes a game of riddles and psychological distress as they all go head to head.

This is a cracking novel by today’s standards, but it wasn’t a bestseller when it was published. It was no doubt appreciated at the time, but not until cheeky rip-off Nosferatu made an appearance did the novel’s popularity grow, 10 years after the author’s death. Stoker was a respected figure in society during his life, mainly owing to his work with the famous actor Henry Irving and his theatre work. He’s also tied to other famous novelists of the period, flitting around with Oscar Wilde and being distantly related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame). I was unsure whether to class this as an Irish or British novel; I settled with British owing to the fact Stoker lived in London and wrote the novel during his time here – plus, nearly all of the plot takes place in Whitby and London. Dracula defined our traditional incarnation of the vampire (big cape, pointy teeth, turns into a bat, yadda yadda), although it’s safe to say the vampires of the 21st century are playing fast and loose with this stereotype. Forms of vampire had been around for hundreds of years before Stoker, but it was only in the 18th century that the V word was bandied around; John Polidori’s The Vampyre was the main predecessor to Dracula. In recent years, it seems that vampires are having a bit of a comeback – but, as I said, they’re not quite the same creatures we saw stalking a fictional Victorian England.

So how do they compare? You might remember me directing this kind of question at two authors during Hay Festival. It’s interesting that on my copy of Dracula the blurb mentions that the book probes into ‘the dark corners of Victorian sexuality and desire’. Do I agree? Actually, I’m not sure. The Count doesn’t seem to be particularly sexualised in the novel itself; he’s certainly not described as being attractive, although he does target young women, so there’s that. He also bites the neck, which could have a sexual undertone. In fact there is only one scene where I felt as if there was some kind of sexual tension building, during a close encounter with a particular young woman, but I won’t go into that for fear of spoiling. But I am reading it with a 21st century eye – to the prude Victorian audience, happy to stifle sexual desire until their wedding nights, this kind of escapism might have been the hottest thing they’d ever laid eyes on. Did this early, sexual association carry the legend of the sexy vampire all the way to 2014?

For if it was ambigious in 1897, it certainly isn’t ambiguous now. We’ve got the tedious yet popular Twilight novels, where the lead vampire’s desire to rip apart and eat the protagonist is presented as a metaphor for wanting to rip her clothes off and ravish her, and that’s probably as tame as it gets – there’s True Blood, there’s The Vampire Diaries, there are all kinds of shoddy Twilight rip-offs where mortals (normally girls) canoodle with vampiric men. Hell, even Fifty Shades of Grey, arguably THE sexiest book of the last decade, was initially written as Twilight fanfiction. The vampire is the sexiest supernatural creature of all, if pop culture is anything to go by. Admittedly, we tend to sexualise EVERYTHING these days (angels? Check. Werewolves?? Check. Zombies?!? Check…) but vampires have a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps them in the limelight, perhaps playing into the human subconscious desire for submission. Modern incarnations of the vampire evoke him (and it’s nearly always a him) being young and dashing – even the modern adaptations of Dracula are casting young, hunky male actors in the lead role, deviating far away from Stoker’s elderly Count, complete with handlebar moustache.

Dracula infamously washes up in Whitby, which I visited for the first time last year. We went at around Christmas time on what felt like the coldest, windiest, most blustery day ever, which made it absolutely perfect. Standing in the graveyard by Whitby Abbey at the top of a great hill where the wind whistles between the tombstones, all with faded, gothic letters scratched into every grave – now that’s where you set a horror novel. Stoker must have felt the same, for it was a visit to Whitby in 1890 that partly inspired his great novel. Perhaps he caught it on a similarly brilliant day – or maybe Whitby is always like that.

There are countless film and television adaptations (cough cough, Nosferatu), but the most famous is probably the 1992 version with Gary Oldman cast as the titular vampire. Oldman was only 34 at the time – a far cry from Stoker’s description of Dracula, and in fact 2 years younger than the latest revival of the Count, an NBC series starring 36-year-old Jonathan Rhys Meyers – but given Oldman’s versatility as an actor, I was sure the character wasn’t in unsafe hands. I haven’t had a chance to catch it yet (and I’ve heard they take great liberties with the plot), but I look forward to checking it out, at some point.

So, my Goodreads review: four stars. Another great classic for my shelves.

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