“The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton (2014)

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“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends.”

I’m very poorly-travelled in the real world, preferring to do my travelling via literature. As such, I’ve never been to Amsterdam in reality, although I keep stopping in. In just the few years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been there on a stag weekend, hidden from Nazis with Anne Frank, and on one occasion just stopped in for dinner. I returned again this week, but it’s an Amsterdam I’m not familiar with from my readings. For this review, we’re stepping back in time.

It’s 1686, and Nella Oortman, an eighteen-year-old from a small village has arrived at a large house in Amsterdam where she is to live with her new husband, the rich trader Johannes Brandt. Nella is unfamiliar with the ways of the city, but is prepared to do her wifely duty. Her new husband, however, is vague and distant, and hardly seeks her out for conversation. His sister, the stern Marin, is anything but friendly so the best welcome she receives is from Cornelia, the maid, and Johannes’ black manservant, Otto.

Johannes, however, realises that his new wife is bored and purchases for her a beautiful doll’s house, and Nella sets about finding a craftsman to make furniture and dolls for it. She is shocked, however, when the furniture that arrives from her mysterious benefactor matches perfectly the furniture in her new house. Indeed, even the dolls are exact replicas. And then more parcels begin to arrive, with other things for her doll’s house that she didn’t request. It seems that the maker, the miniaturist, knows something that Nella doesn’t, and when the house’s many secrets begin to spill out, she isn’t sure if the miniaturist is sending a warning or a threat.

As much as I read pretty much anything, there probably is a certain pattern to what I read, and The Miniaturist at first glance seems like it’s going against that pattern. It doesn’t feel very “me” but something about it obviously stirred interest in my gut when I found it on a second-hand stall at a train station platform. It’s sat on the shelf for about two years, but then when I started it I was instantly captivated. The characters are vivid in their description, and the whole novel is permeated with a strange sense of foreboding. Like Nella, you wonder what is going on, who this miniaturist is and what they could possibly want with the family, and what secrets are being kept from the wider world.

I was sympathetic to Nella immediately, but I was particularly taken with the character of Marin. She is foreboding and unpleasant, but her manner hides something else and she becomes something else. Indeed, everyone inspires pity, but for very different reasons. With a couple of exceptions maybe, sugar plantation owner Frans Meermans being one of them. Amsterdam is painted as a living, breathing city, but one where there are always eyes watching everything that happens, a fact emphasised by the doll’s house figures, each laced with secrets that the maker could not possibly have known.

I was oddly moved by the novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve been reading a little less lately due to a vain attempt to catch up some other media I’d been ignoring, but this was the first book for a couple of weeks I’d purposely set aside a little more time to read, not just using train journeys to plod through it. A charming and special novel, it is a simple story told beautifully and I’m pleased to have added it to my pool.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank (1947)

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annefrank“I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.”

As I’ve made it quite clear before, there is little I won’t read. I do, however, have one general stipulation – if I can help it, I won’t read anything set during either of the World Wars.

Before I’m accused of not caring, that’s simply not the case. I can’t say I’ve never read any books about them, because I have, and I’m not ignorant of the events. I don’t dismiss them as unimportant – they were of course hugely important events and not something that should ever be forgotten. I veer from them because it is reading about humanity at its very worst, at a time in which humans were doing things that are, to my mind, unimaginable. Hitler was evil, there’s no question, but he didn’t work alone and millions of people took to battle and all sides did unspeakable things. I don’t want to read about this grisly time in our history because I cannot understand it.

However, Anne Frank is a character who has sparked my imagination for a very long time. I had never much thought of reading her book, what with my aversion to war, classic novels and child narrators, but I finally decided that enough was enough and that I should join the ranks of those who had read and shared her thoughts. I was not in the least bit prepared for what I read.

As you all know, Anne Frank was a Jewish girl who was living in Germany at the time of the Second World War. The family moved to the Amsterdam in 1933, when the Nazis took over Germany, and by 1940 they were trapped there, thanks to German occupation of the Netherlands. In 1942, her family are forced to go into hiding, along with another four Jews, holing themselves up in the Secret Annexe, above the office where her father used to work. Anne’s thirteenth birthday had happened just a few weeks before she was moved there, and the present she was happiest to have recieved was a red and white checked diary, and it is this diary that would one day become one of the most famous books in the history of the world.

With little else to do, she began keeping record of her time trapped in the Annexe with seven other people, no ability to go outside, no clue of how long they would be there and the ever present and very real threat of being discovered. As it turns out, she and her companions were there for just over two years when, on August 4th 1944, they were discovered and taken to concentration camps. Anne herself went to the most famous of them all, Auschwitz. She died in Bergen-Belsen, two weeks before the camp’s liberation.

annes diaryHer diary and other writing was kept by the people who had hidden them for so long and when her father returned to the Annexe in 1945 (he was the sole survivor of the eight), he was presented the diary and decided to go along with wishes that Anne had expressed in the diary to have it published. To this day, the world is thankful that Otto Frank took that decision.

Entering the book, you know what happens at the end, and that merely makes the tragedy of the story that much more tragic. Every time Anne mentions her theoretical future children, or her desire to be a journalist when she grows up, there is a genuine pang of pain in your heart as you know that her dreams will never come true. As the days count down to that fateful 1944 day, you begin to hope and pray that you’ve got a new edition in which she is saved at the last minute and lives on into modernity to become a celebrated writer. But no. While her name and her work live on, dear Anne herself does not.

I confess I knew little about her personality before this and I was surprised – I always had her pegged as a more studious, shy sort of girl, but she is the class clown, a cheeky, outspoken girl who knows her own mind from such a young age and is deeply intelligent and interested in the world around her. She has Gryffindorian bravery and boldness, and still has the power to believe “in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”. It is heartbreaking to think of what she could have become, and then even more heartbreaking to realise that she was just one of millions who had their lives snuffed out before their time, taking with them whatever they could have brought to humanity’s table.

There are also apparently a number of versions of the book. The first was heavily edited by Otto Frank who took out many passages in which Anne spoke badly of his wife, and any that hinted at her burgeoning sexuality, all of which seems a bit odd considering that the story rests on a backdrop of war and genocide. It has since been brought back up to its fullness and now nothing appears to be left out. While the action is often slow-paced, the story is compelling. You know how it ends, but it’s just interesting to try and get some idea of how horrible this life was. We can never know exactly how dire things were, but it’s encouraging to see the hidden Jews keeping up morale and making jokes. They may quarrel a lot, but they cannot let the fights take over, as there is nowhere else for them to go.

If you haven’t read this, then I urge you to pick it up and read one of the most compelling, haunting and moving books I have ever encountered.

“The Dinner” by Herman Koch (2011)

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dinner

Who ordered the lobster?

“We are going out to dinner.”

Already this year, I have ventured to read my first German author and now here I am reading my first Dutch author, Herman Koch. Apparently well known in his own country, this is his first book that has been translated into English. The premise of the novel is simple – the story is told over the course of a single meal and is divided into five sections: aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert and digestif. From the moment they enter the restaurant to the moment the bill arrives, I was hooked.

There are four people at this dinner. Paul, our narrator with more issues than a glossy magazine. Claire, his destermined, intelligent wife. Serge, Paul’s brother and potentially the next Prime Minister. And Babette, his wife who arrives to the dinner clearly having just been crying.

The four have gathered for a reason, although it isn’t strictly very clear at first what that reason is. As it goes on, events unfold and their meeting is explained. They both have teenage sons, and those sons have been caught on CCTV doing something horrifying. The footage has been shown on the news, all over the country, but only the four parents have identified the culprits. They now need to work out what they should do about it, how they can protect their sons and themselves, and how to keep the family together.

I can’t really say any more than that without ruining the main plot, but it’s certainly a gem. The characters are very interesting, all much darker than one first realises. In fact, the whole novel slides rather quickly into a black hole and never quite gets out of it again. There are naturally flashbacks to moments in their past, and the end has a “what happened next” feel about it, but the vast majority of the action takes place in this very fancy restaurant with the staff buzzing around, trying to keep this important politician happy.

Paul is a great narrator, although it quickly becomes clear that he is disturbed. The reasons quickly become evident once the main course arrives and his story is explored more deeply. Serge and Babette are sympathetic characters, trying to fight back their egotism and desperation to succeed for the sake of their son and nephew. I actually like all four of the main characters (five, if you count Paul and Claire’s son Michel who also appears briefly), although that’s not to say that I would particularly want to go for dinner with them. Still, I find the good guys are rarely the best characters. (Case in point: I will insist to the death that Dolores Umbridge is the greatest thing in the Harry Potter books, and Aornis Hades from the Thursday Next series is a true masterpiece.)

This is an intense novel about family and politics, justice and ethics, innocence and guilt. There are some great discussions on the nature of victims and the arguments surrounding capital punishment. The thread of unhappy families weaves throughout the narrative, too.

This may be the best book I have read this year – at no point was I bored or wished it to hurry along. The narrative is clever in that so little action actually happens, and that mere seconds take pages to occur, but that is the nature of small moments like this. Our minds fill with so many thoughts in every moment that to explain them all would take a while. Koch manages that nicely. The premise of setting it over a meal is also a beautiful touch, as you know when it has to end, and feel with the characters as they try to decide at what point it would be best to discuss the thing they have all come to discuss.

Skip dinner, try this instead.