16 March 2015

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

This blog post comes to you from Jan Munday (because yes I missed yet another meeting):

This book has been in various bestseller lists for some time and several of us had looked forward to reading it and seeing what the hype was about.
It turned out to be intriguing on many levels, although not everyone liked it. Some thought it a bit slow and annoying in parts.

We were all impressed by the historical research behind this novel by a first time author, which made you feel as if you actually on the streets of old Amsterdam of the 1680s, walking along the canal-side. The evocation of the smells was particularly vivid!

This book is a page turner and we found it kept our attention throughout.

Some of us found the first part of the book quite “dark”, with a feeling of magic in the air or of something mystical happening. This effect was thought to lessen somewhat later in the book.

Those not enamoured of the book were not convinced of the relevance of the miniaturist character and thought there was enough in the story without that person and the miniature house. However, others felt differently. It was considered the central theme around which the rest was built, that the house and its dolls reflected real people and their lives and secrets, produced via the surreptitious study of everyone by the miniaturist. The house could be a comfort to Nella, the central character, a country born, na├»ve girl, who is lonely and lacking in confidence, but she also seems to hate or fear the house. She seems to mature quite quickly under the desperate situations she finds herself in, and we thought this might be because she feels the figures have encouraged her to take more control of her life.

We could see how restricted women were in this society, not allowed to run businesses or even visit their husband’s place of work without his permission. The feminist hackles rose all round about this!! Interestingly, another central character, Marin, Nella’s sister in law, was unmarried by choice (not deemed at all suitable in this city at this time) and appears a very strong woman with the household under her eagle eye. However, we spotted a hidden sensual side to her with her fur lined bodices and sugared walnuts. Yet another secret!

We all felt the claustrophobic feeling due to strict Lutheran / Calvinist societal restrictions came over very well, as does the hypocrisy displayed by the wealthy merchants with their jewellery, fine clothes and feasting. Even the priest was not averse to being bought off to provide a burial place for Marin when she dies in childbirth. Money is dominant here, and in the God versus guilder contest, the guilder wins every time.

The trial and execution of Nella’s husband Johannes is described in graphic detail and the feeling of horrible despair made it seem as if we were there watching and we thought there was likely an element of revenge and / or jealousy involved, with an old rival of his being the accuser and lying witness to what was considered to be a disgusting act.

Although two people didn't like this book, most of us were glad to have read it and enjoyed it. It threw up lots of interesting comments and opinions.

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