Monday, May 19, 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014)

It's 1686 and 18-year-old Petronella Brandt (nee Oortman) has arrived in Amsterdam to join her new rich merchant husband Johannes. Nella's father recently died, leaving her family penniless and her with no options but to marry to survive. The marriage was arranged by Nella's mother and Johannes' sister Marin and Nella knows little of her husband or the life she is to live away from her family.

As days pass, Nella is lost and lonely in her new environment. Her sister-in-law Marin is cold and unfriendly, outwardly pious and self-flagellating but behind closed doors revelling in luxury. Johanne's manservant Otto is the first black man Nella has ever seen and she is fascinated by the sight of him and the colour of his skin. The maid Cordelia is irreverent and familiar like no servant Nella has ever known. Johannes is often absent and when he is in the house, distant and distracted. Nella waits night after night for the marital visit from him that she both dreads and looks forward to, but morning after morning she wakes alone. After two weeks of overhearing heated whispered conversations that she doesn't understand, Johanne arrives home with a wedding gift for Nella: a perfect miniature replica of their house. She writes to a miniaturist requesting items to fill it and, in doing so, inspires change within the house, for the miniatures that arrive demonstrate a knowledge of the events within the Brandt household that is both chilling and, for Nella, entrancing.

At its centre, this is a novel about women and the limits that are placed on them by society. Each of the three women who live in this house - Nella, Marin and Cordelia - are restricted in terms of their labour and the value its placed on it. Nella questions whether it is possible to be a real woman without bearing children while Marin sees marriage as a prison without escape. For Cordelia, being saved from an orphanage means constant backbreaking labour, where even "days off" involve cooking for the household. Beyond these three women dances the figure of eponymous Miniaturist: a female artisan working at a time where it is forbidden to apprentice women who lives alone in a city where the only women who do so are whores and widows.

The historical detail in this book is fascinating. It does start off quite slowly but once the miniatures start appearing, the narrative really starts to move. It opens a window to another time and place, which is what good novels should do. Three and a half stars.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton (2013)

I do not write about much my personal life on this blog. My aim has been to keep it as a space for my Serious Thoughts About Books (sometimes truthfully not all that serious, but I do try!). However, it seems appropriate to bend the rules a little bit because it's hard to discuss the book I am about to without referencing the context in which it was read. It is, as you might have guessed, Eleanor Catton's small-dog-sized novel, The Luminaries, which I was given as a present for Christmas. It is really big and really heavy, so I put it aside until my recent Easter holiday in Noosa, where I had four solid days to do nothing but hang by the pool, drink cocktails and read this book.

Four days proved to be not enough. The book, which won the 2013 Booker Prize, is set in the small gold rush town of Hokitika in New Zealand in 1866. Traveller Walter Moody has come to seek his fortune in the goldfields but arrives in the town in a state of great upset, having witnessed an unexplained event on the boat trip from England. In search of brandy and solace, he goes to the bar of the hotel he is staying in and stumbles upon a secret meeting of twelve local men. The town is in uproar due to the disappearance of local man Emery Staines, the attempted suicide of local prostitute Anna Wetherell, among other things, and all of the men are involved in some way in the events (and it is all men - there is no female dialogue until about the 150th page).

The novel starts brilliantly. It is written in the style of a nineteenth century novel and Catton captures the tone and form of that type of writing perfectly. I was so excited by this, because I love to read that type of book and the number of nineteenth century novels in existence is (obviously) finite. However, before too long it became clear that although the writing may be in the style of old English authors like Dickens, the structure is very modern. Each of the 12 characters in the secret meeting are representative of one of the figures of the zodiac, with their character traits resembling that of the zodiac signs. The structure of the book is also notable. It is divided into twelve parts, with each part being half the size of the part that preceded it. These stylistic decisions were obvious enough that the reader was meant to notice them but I have no idea what they were supposed to mean. While they absolutely made me think "Gosh, this Elinor Catton is a clever cookie", they did not add to my enjoyment of the story. In fact, I felt that the need to manipulate the story to fit into the pre-designated chapter length negatively affected the storytelling, in that some parts felt a bit rushed and others excessively drawn out.

I am torn in my opinion of The Luminaries. I think if Catton had've focused on the story rather than the structure, it would have been more entertaining and had a better narrative. But, if she had've done that, I doubt that she would have won the Booker. For me, The Luminaries was much much too long - it was physically painful to read the book for too long, it was so heavy - and I do think the story suffered because of stylistic decisions. But, I like artists who take risks and, while maybe this one didn't quite come off (if you need to introduce mystic realism at the end of the book to get your plot to work, it hasn't), I am excited to see what Catton does in the future.

My recommendation is, only read this book if you have a lot of time, a lot of patience and a Kindle. Three and a half stars.