Book No 17 (2015) : The Miniaturist

miniaturistJessie Burton’s debut novel ‘The Miniaturist’ has reached the Sunday Times No 1 Bestseller list twice, and was the Waterstones Book of the Year 2014. Surely it must be exceptionally brilliant? Well, meh. To be honest, the book left me distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve since had a look around t’Internet at other reviews and opinions and I am not alone. There is a prevailing view that the book promises but does not deliver; it starts off interestingly but peters out towards the end, leaving readers dissatisfied. I recommended the novel to a book group and hadn’t quite finished it when we came to discuss it, but my friends’ views tallied with most others.

It is 1686: Petronella (Nella) has been married off to a wealthy merchant and is sent away to his house in Amsterdam to begin married life. She finds herself in a rather unconventional household, living with her sister-in-law, Marin, and two servants. Soon after her arrival, Nella is presented with a dolls’ house as a wedding gift from her husband. She commissions some pieces for the house and is surprised by the miniaturist’s uncanny knack of capturing the likenesses of the people and objects within the young bride’s dwelling. Although not unkind to Nella, Johannes, her husband, does not seem keen to consummate the marriage and is often away from home. On a surprise visit to Johannes’ place of work, Nella discovers the reason for his aversion to intimacy. When Johannes’ secret is discovered by others, his life is put in danger and Nella’s strength is put to the test. Meanwhile, the enigmatic miniaturist remains hidden but continues to produce perceptive and prophetic replicas.

The storyline and setting are unusual, which is one of the charms of the book, giving some insight into the lives of early Dutch traders. Sugar had only just begun to be available and it is interesting to see how what we see as a commonplace ingredient was treated with such reverence. But these details were not enough to sustain my interest as I did (extremely unusually for me!) manage to guess the main plot twists. The relationships within the household are complex but ultimately unconvincing; I didn’t sympathise with the characters’ dilemnas.

Dolls’ houses actually freak me out. I can’t explain why, but I think it might be something to do with a now-forgotten experience during a visit to Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle when I was a child. I am not a fan of miniatures in real life and, sadly, Jessie Burton’s work failed to persuade me of their attraction.

Book No 45 (2014) : All the Light We Cannot See

all the lightIf it wasn’t for the fact that I fell asleep at 2.00am, holding this paperback until the words were swimming on the page, I would have read Anthony Doerr‘s ‘All the Light We Cannot See‘ in one sitting. Considering the novel is 530 pages long, that is saying something, and my tenacity was not just because of my 50-book target for the year. This is one of the best books I have read in 2014. It was top of my Christmas list and I got started on Boxing Day!

The blurb focuses on the two central characters in the novel; Marie-Laure Leblanc is a young blind girl living with her locksmith father in Paris. Werner Pfennig is a German orphan with a feverish interest in science and a natural knack for fixing radios; his talent affords him the opportunity to enter a National Political Institute of Education, a military academy. When war breaks out, the Leblanc  leave the city to make for firstly Evreux, then St Malo on the Northern coast of France. Werner continues his training and is sent to war, using mathematical and practical skills to track down enemy broadcasters. The teenagers’ lives intersect for a short, but unforgettable space in time.

Although I penned that sketchy synopsis, you could have discovered one for yourself online; but what a book-jacket can’t convey as well is how Doerr’s writing draws you in, as if you are a fly caught in an intricate web. There are threads which lead you further and further into the centre of the story, nothing is insignificant, no details are wasted, until everything pulls together into a tight pattern. Doerr evokes the magic of childhood imagination as Etienne flies with Marie-Laure on the Magical Couch, the courage of resistance as Mme Manec joins with other Malouins to undermine the enemy, the pull of the sea, humour, comradeship and so much more.

And what about the title? What are the lights we cannot see? Both Marie-Laure and Werner find themselves trapped in darkness but are inspired and courageous nevertheless. The beacons which guide them through the blackness cannot be seen, but still shine brightly; love, hope, friendship, belief, bravery – all of these can lead us out of the gloom.

Writing about this book has focused my mind more carefully on what I am doing here on this blog than probably any of  the other works I have reviewed. If you want to know what a book is about, probably best to look on Waterstones website and read a synopsis, but if you are looking for a recommendation for a book you might enjoy – read this one!

 

Book No 19 (2014) : The Help

the help bookThis was a book group choice and so I read it even though I had seen the film. As a rider to my own thoughts, I will say first that this book has received almost unanimous positive praise; for example, 1646 ‘5 star’ ratings on Amazon as compared to only 14 ‘1 star’, 59 ‘5 star’ compared to only 1 ‘1 star’ on Waterstones. So, it is undoubtedly an extremely popular book.

‘The Help’ is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the Deep South, where black women work as domestic help in white households. Segregation is the norm, although rumblings of change are afoot with the emergence of activists such as Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. The novel follows Aibileen and Minny, two coloured ‘helps’ who are persuaded by Skeeter Phelan, an ambitious and unconventional young, white woman, to share their stories of life in domestic service for publication in a book. Written in the patois of the servants, the narrative explores their relationships with the whites whose homes they run. They expose wrong-doing and ingrained prejudice, but also loyalty and friendship. The book is at times amusing and illuminating, touching on a deeply shameful aspect of modern society. It provoked a great deal of animated discussion at our regular book group gathering!

Whilst I enjoyed the book, I did have some reservations. These largely centred upon the fact that the characters seemed stereo-typed, none of the men in the book get a good press and many of the plot elements were too far-fetched. I have not read any other fiction set in this era and am loath to criticise too viciously, I was just left with a vague feeling of uneasiness. Whilst trying to organise my thoughts around this issue, I found the following link extremely useful : An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help. In conclusion, whilst ‘The Help’ is an entertaining read, it is not necessarily a reliable social commentary.