My review of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

One thing I learned from reading this novel is that clearly most readers are better at suspending disbelief than I am. At times the plotting of this book was so preposterous and highly excitable that it seemed to me like the literary equivalent of pantomime. A wild man in pantomime clothes stabs a painting, then he stabs a dog, then he in turn is stabbed by an equally exotic piratical character, he seems to be dying but then suddenly reverts back to amateur dramatics – the entire scene, aspiring to pathos, is pure farce, childish slapstick. Then the whole premise of the miniaturist and her dark arts is so cynically far-fetched that I wouldn’t be surprised if initially this novel was conceived as a children’s story. In some ways it’s two different novels: there’s the basic storyline with its adult themes – a young girl marries into a family of Dutch traders and finds herself in a house with many dark secrets and then grafted somewhat heavy-handedly on top is the fairy story of the miniaturist supplying a constant feast of implausible hollow mystery the nature of which is never addressed. And not once did I feel these two narratives were reconciled. You could take out the entire character of the miniaturist and her sorcery from this novel without it altering the novel’s basic plot at all.
But there’s also something cynical about the construction of this novel. As if, prior to composition, a lot of market research was done to identify what exactly makes a best-selling novel. I suspect a computer program might have come up with a plot similar were it engineered to formulate the basic components for a best-selling novel. We’ve got the exotic location, the innocent heroine, we’ve got tall dark strangers mincing into virtually every other chapter, we’ve got goodies and baddies with just enough leeway to allow for twists, we’ve got a sugary relish for sensual descriptive prose and we’ve got one mystery after another shovelled into the narrative. I thought maybe the doll’s house might be a symbol of a clever subtext about women’s lack of autonomy in the public realm back in those dark days but really it’s just a cheap gimmick to feed a constant current of mystery into the plot. There are good things. The characters are well-drawn and evolve well in relation to each other and there’s a truly harrowing account of childbirth. But essentially it’s a watercolour of a novel, little texture or underpainting or depth – everything is on the surface. I guess this is escapist fiction because rarely did it make me think about anything – a story that allows one to forget about real life for a bit. I had the feeling near the end that thirty or so revealing pages were missing from the text. I felt cheated. Depressing that this outsold virtually every other novel last year.

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