The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A well-researched historical novel is a pleasure to read from a such a viewpoint, as was this work by Jessie Burton.
Burton also uses language well, with actions and adjectives ascribed to things you would not normally associate them with. This kept me hooked, the pace of the book without such skill would have seen it gathering dust on the bedside table.
The pleasure I found in Burton's writing also saved it from the mass of messages she was trying to impart. Feminism, homosexuality, racism, puritanism and capitalism were all combined in the cauldron with a sprinkling of ghostliness in the form of the eponymous miniaturist; the pot was in danger of boiling over. Burton did manage to keep the lid on it, but I think her recipe would have benefited from an ingredient or two less.
The feminism theme was heralded with the introduction of Peebo, the protagonist's parakeet. A caged bird: how free will it be allowed to fly, will it be burned like Coco in Wide Sargasso Sea, or will it remain in a gilded cage? The reader is under no illusion- this is a feminist text: an unmarried sister, a young woman who will readily flaunt the accepted rules of womanhood and a maid who steps beyond the usual limits for a servant. Then there is the cabinet-size replica house - a doll's house - the nod to Ibsen and the strong-willed Nora. All it needed was a madwoman to be discovered in the attic and we would have the full house.
As for characterisation, the female characters are believable but they are nothing new. Nella is young, naive yet strong-minded and liberal, whilst Marin is the archetypal austere, dominating, unmarried sister dressed in black who runs the household on a shoe-string despite their wealth. Johannes, on the other hand, is rather two-dimensional: he has his work and his vices and I cannot understand where his pleasure in Nella comes from. As for Otto, he is shepherded in and out of the plot and we do not really get to understand the character who is so pivotal.
All this seems rather negative for a book that I have given three stars to, but these are really my only bug-bears (other than understanding the true size of the miniatures - how could she see Jack's doll on the doorstep?). It is beautifully written, the jacket blurb and copious reviews that adorn the inside pages of the book are not wrong there. Whilst slow-paced there is sufficient intrigue to keep the reader wanting more, with some surprising twists and turns, and some less so.
An enjoyable read, but not as powerful as historical feminist pieces such as those by Sarah Waters.
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