The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
“A lifetime isn’t enough to know how a person will behave.”
The Miniaturist is one of many books that has fallen victim to my ever growing to be read pile. I bought it a year ago after my tutor recommended it along with some of 2015s other most successful novels. I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long to get around to it. I think for me, half the excitement is in getting a new book and then once I’ve got it I’m off to compulsively buy more. I’ve also turned into a library fiend of late. So I buy books and then leave them to fester, which doesn’t seem like the most sensible idea now that I think of it. Anyway, my summer holiday was a chance to shrink down the pile and The Miniaturist was top of the list.
It’s 1686 and Nella isn’t a girl anymore. She’s moved to Amsterdam to live with her new husband, a merchant she hardly knows in a city she knows even less about. Marriage has given her the opportunity to leave her village and the financial ruin her father has left behind, to become head of her own household. The only problem is that her austere sister-in-law seems to have taken that place. When her husband finally arrives she does not get the welcome she anticipated. For a wedding present he gives her an ornate cabinet house, a miniature replica of the secretive home she has stumbled into. To furnish the house she employees the help of a mysterious craftsman, known only as the miniaturist. But the miniaturist sends items unrequested, items that show they know more about the Brandt family than they should.
The Miniaturist is a novel of secrets and the Brandt household is the closet where many of the skeletons are hidden. Nella suspects things are being kept from her as soon as she arrives. Her sister-in-law is a waspish woman, known for her frugal nature but she her rooms burst with books, shells and maps. Her husband seems reluctant to bind with her, burying himself in his work and disappearing for periods at a time. Nella’s one ally is Cornelia the maid, but even she has a tendency to listen at keyholes. And something is happening at night that only Nella seems to hear. Only the miniaturist appears to know the truth and is intent on bringing secrets into the light.
Amsterdam is alive in the book. Burton reveals a city that thrives on greed and duplicity. Trade is at the heart of its prosperity but the foundations are shaky, and that uncertainty brings out the worst in people. Nella is thrown into a world that she has little experience of and she has to adapt quickly in order to keep afloat. She is good at adapting to new discoveries as the story unfolds, but maybe a little too much. At times she can be too accommodating, especially when it comes to the members of the Brandt household. She only half stands up to her sister-in-law and in some respects she is too lenient towards her husband. Their marital relationship is strong but Johannes doesn’t work for Nella’s trust and respect. He deceives her from the start.
The miniaturist’s creations are wonderfully unsettling, not only revealing the past to Nella but eerily predicting the future as well. She has a gift for perception, seeing past the exterior people presents to what is really hidden underneath but her role in the Brandt’s story seemed unclear. Her messages to Nella and the creations she sent could be taken as a malicious act or as a preventative measure. In the end, her miniatures did nothing to effect the outcomes as Nella often discovered their meaning too late.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
“Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.”
Women come in all shapes, sizes and attitudes in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. There are overbearing mothers, cool friends and cruel employers. Some are fiercely loyal, driven, loud-mouthed, insecure others are downright ugly on the inside.
It’s the unsung heroes of Jackson, Mississippi that take the spotlight in The Help. The novel tells the story of the African American women who works as maids for the town’s affluent white families. They clean their clothes, polish their silver, raise their children but are treated with thinly veiled contempt and suspicion by their employers. Skeeter, a young woman recently returned from college, sees the injustice in the way her friends treat their maids and fights to have their stories heard.
Aibileen is a gentle woman. She plays mother to Mae Mobley, the daughter of Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth. Over the years, she’s brought up a number of children who were not her own but she treats them with all the warmth and affection of a mother. For some children, like Mae Mobley, she is the only loving parental figure they have. The love she has for Mae Mobley is deepened by grief, having lost her only son in recent years. She tries to instil Mae Mobley with a sense of self-worth and an acceptance of all people, regardless of race but Elizabeth seems intent to undo all her good work. Elizabeth doesn’t like her daughter, on some occasions she can’t even tolerate her. She passes her off to Aibileen as often as she can and is easily led by Hilly Hollbrook, the town’s League leader. When Hilly starts an initiative to have separated outside bathrooms installed for the help, Elizabeth fails to see the irony: how can someone be good enough to raise your child but not good enough to use your bathroom?
Minnie is the opposite of Aibileen, all hard edges where the elder maid is soft and warm. Her mouth has gotten her into trouble over the years and after placing herself at the top of Hilly’s hit list she worries she won’t find work again, until she becomes employed by Celia Foote, an unconventional housewife who seems more intent on being her friend than being her boss. Their relationship is one of the shining points of the novel. Her whole life, Minnie has known what to expect from the white upper class but Celia is unpredictable. In some ways, Celia is in a similar predicament to Minnie. She’s a social pariah thanks to Hilly, who holds a grudge against her for marrying her childhood sweetheart. Minnie tries to keep their relationship strictly professional but finds herself growing fond of Celia, even protective of her. Despite her prickly nature, she is fiercely loyal although she does her best to keep her softer side under wraps.
Like Celia, Skeeter is on the outside of society. Her school friendships with Elizabeth and Hilly only go so far, and when she begins to outwardly disagree with their behaviour they exclude her. Their treatment doesn’t dissuade her, and she continues to do what she believes is right, collecting the maids’ stories for her manuscript. She has had a taste of life outside of Jackson and outgrown the women she grew up with.
What’s really striking in The Help is the way in which communities develop. Jackson has a divide running through it based on race, and the separation between genders is particularly apparent within the upper class. The enmity pushes people apart but also creates stronger connections. The League and the women who run it are controlling, stifling anyone who thinks differently. Individuality has no place within the League, neither does compassion. It’s Aibileen and Minnie’s church that demonstrate true community spirit. They support one another unconditionally, pooling money together for those less fortunate, praying for those in need, congratulating each other on their success.
The Help is a moving story about bravery, compassion and having the strength to speak out, but ultimately it shows what can be achieved when you stand together.
The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich
Simon Rich’s short story collection The Last Girlfriend on Earth will definitely take you by surprise. Funny, insightful and downright weird, Rich’s stories are about getting the girl, having her and losing her. It’s the sort of collection you can imagine Daniel Handler would write if he fell down the rabbit hole.
What makes these stories unique is the way in which they are told. Love stories are constantly being regurgitated in films, TV and novels, and while there’s nothing wrong with sinking into a good old-fashioned romance, it’s always refreshing when someone comes along to shake things up. Rich certainly does that. The opening story Unprotected alerts you straight away that these aren’t typical tales of falling in love. Unprotected is told from the perspective of an expired condom that lives in the dark folds of a boy’s wallet. It’s ultimately about the boy’s coming of age and his first sexual encounters but Rich ingeniously suggests this through the state of the boy’s wallet. As he matures, the Blockbuster Video card is replaced by a Driving Licence, and the Batman Velcro wallet is swapped for stiff brown leather. The condom is a surprisingly naïve character (believing himself to be a balloon) who relies on the wallet’s other residents to tell him of his true purpose.
Other stories are equally inventive. Dog Missed Connections is a series of submissions by dogs that feel they’ve missed a potential encounter. They range from sincere to vulgar, playing on canine behaviour but they are not wildly different from their human counterparts. In I Love Girl, a Neanderthal named Oog is in love with Girl but she is with Boog. Too woo he, he clears a path from her home in the mountains to the river. Although they are primitive (Oog kills Boog with a rock in order to secure Girl’s affections) their interactions are familiar.
Rich’s fantastical scenarios show how we approach relationships in a psychedelic light.