Review 1385: The Miniaturist

I so enjoyed The Miniaturist that I was only disappointed at knowing all its secrets, since I had first seen it televised on Masterpiece. Jessie Burton’s novel is set in the 17th century, and what a difference from the previous novel I read (Widdershins) also set in the 17th century. Burton’s novel evokes the bustling city of Amsterdam, ruled by commerce but also by a harsh Calvinism, a city where people are constantly watched for misbehavior.

Nella arrives from the country to take up residence with her new husband, Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant. Although she brings a good family name to the marriage, she brings nothing else, for her father was a poor businessman.

Nella isn’t warmly received. Johannes’s sister Marin is cold, and Johannes hasn’t bothered to be home. When, after a few days, Johannes hasn’t consummated the marriage and Marin continues with the housekeeping, Nella fears that she has no role in her new life.

Johannes’s marriage gift to her is a miniature copy of their house that she can furnish. Although Nella thinks he is treating her like a child, she eventually sends a note to a miniaturist asking for three items: a lute, because Marin will not allow her to play the ones in the house; a block of marzipan, because Marin disapproves of sugar; and a marriage cup, which Nella should have received from Johannes but did not. When the items arrive, they are exquisite, but she also receives things she did not order. And more arrive. They so closely match what is going on in the house that Nella first thinks the family is being spied upon, later that the items foretell the future.

This novel is really good. The story and characters are compelling. Life both within the claustrophobic household and the city is evocatively evoked. It has a delicate touch that reminds me very much of Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring. And there is that tantalizing touch of the supernatural.

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Review 1382: The Sport of Kings

To paraphrase Sophia Brownrigg, a reviewer from The Guardian, The Sport of Kings is about horse racing like Moby Dick is about whales. It is ambitious—attempting to tell the history of Kentucky through that of two families—one white, wealthy, elitist, and bigotted, the other black, poor, and beleagered. It is sometimes magnificent in its prose and sometimes overblown. It is Southern Gothic, focussing on the ramifications of slavery and bigotry.

Henry Forge is the only son of a proud Kentucky family. As a youngster, he was brutalized by his father and lectured about his place in history. We have some sympathy with him until, in his teens, he commits an unforgivable act.

He rebels against his father by turning the family corn plantation into a horse farm, but the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. When his wife leaves him, his daughter is nine. He takes his daughter out of school and teaches her himself, all his lessons revolving around horses and breeding and including much out-of-date or just plain incorrect information. He is as elitist as his father—and worse.

Henrietta grows up with a talent for working with horses and a keen, cold intelligence. She also likes to pick up men for sex. Then she meets Allmon Shaughnessy, the new African-American groom, fresh from a prison program for working with horses.

Up to that point, the novel seems mostly a multigenerational saga, occasionally discoursing on geology, genetics, or history in the interludes. But after that it becomes wildly overblown at times, reminding me of the characteristics of Moby Dick that I disliked.

Like one other reader on Goodreads, every time I picked up this novel I wanted it to end. It is about deeply unpleasant characters; the least at fault—Allmon—whines his way through the novel. Its long asides are often irritating. It is sometimes beautiful and very dark, but it is often annoying.

Last year I read an essay—I can’t remember who wrote it—complaining about what I call “books only men like,” usually the ones that win awards. (I read this one for my James Tait Black prize project.) This essay commented that because a certain type of book gets attention and wins awards, now some women are beginning to write like men, using All the Birds, Singing as an example. I did not agree with the writer’s example but couldn’t help thinking of this essay while I read this novel.

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Review 1379: The Nightingale

I wasn’t impressed by the only other Kristin Hannah novel I read, but my brother recommended The Nightingale so strongly that I decided to give her another chance. I know I’m probably in the minority.

The novel begins with an old lady living in Oregon in 1995 who is moving into a retirement home and is sorting through old papers with her son. Her son finds the identity papers of Juliette Gervaise, a person he’s never heard of. This launches most of the rest of the novel, set in France during World War II.

The two Rossignol sisters are very different women. Vianne is a mother, wife, and schoolteacher. When the Nazis arrive in the village, she is careful to follow orders and try to stay out of trouble. Isabella, however, is a rebellious teenager who runs away from school and immediately begins distributing fliers for the Resistance.

As Vianne fights to survive and protect her daughter, Sophie, she eventually finds that she can’t always follow the rules. In the meantime, Isabella’s involvement with the Resistance becomes more dangerous. Obviously, one of hooks of the novel is to find out which sister becomes the little old lady in Oregon.

It took quite a while, but I did become involved in this novel. It’s an interesting story, based on a real one. I still, however, consider the writing mediocre and trite and the characterization flat except for a few characters. I found the novel affecting, though.

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Review 1378: Widdershins

Widdershins presumably takes place in the 17th century, when Puritan elements began to go after the local wise women and midwives and accuse them of witchcraft. The novel follows two characters, John, who was raised by his mother’s midwife after her death, and Jane, whose mother is a midwife.

When John is a boy, he is sent to live with his uncle, a woman-hating Puritan. He casts off his affection for his foster mother and begins to imbibe his uncle’s beliefs. As Jane approaches womanhood, she is being taught midwifery and the use of herbs by her midwife mother and Mag, a wandering wise woman. She also falls in love with her best friend, Tom.

It’s clear from the beginning that these two characters are on a collision course. However, for me, it was taking too long to get there. I’m not a reader who requires a lot of action from a novel, but I do require something. I didn’t find these characters particularly compelling, and when I reached the halfway point, I decided to stop.

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Review 1373: The Queen of the Caribbean

I was intrigued enough when I wrote my Classic Author Focus article on Emilio Salgari for The Classics Club that I ordered one of his books. Salgari was an early 20th century adventure novelist whose work inspired other writers and film makers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really do my homework and ended up picking a book with an appealing cover and title. The problem was that it is the second in Salgari’s Black Corsair series. Unlike many old adventure series—I’m thinking of, for example, Tom Swift—The Queen of the Caribbean depends heavily on its predecessor, The Black Corsair, which I had of course never read.

I was a bit taken aback when I opened the book to find a modern map of Southern Mexico and Central America labeled “West Indies, 1600.” The only concession to the 1600’s was a hasty label “New Spain.” Panama, which wasn’t even a country until a couple of years before the book was published in 1905, was delineated. Apparently, Salgari or his publishers (assuming this was a map that appeared in the original publication and not a creation for the republished copy) chose to use modern place names, some of them even in English.

Other than that, Salgari appears to have some knowledge of pirates, sea-going, and the flora and fauna of Mexico and Florida. Unfortunately, he sometimes stops the action dead in its tracks to tell us about some plant or animal. In a way, this book reminds me of those of W. H. G. Kingston, which I had a small collection of that never reappeared after our move. However, Kingston was better at working his facts into the story.

The Black Corsair is pursuing his enemy, Van Guld, who betrayed his followers in battle. Later, after the Black Corsair and his brothers turned pirate in pursuit of their enemy, Van Guld was responsible for the deaths of the corsair’s brothers. All this apparently happened in the first book. In The Queen of the Caribbean, this pursuit leads them to attack Vera Cruz, an event that actually happened. During the search in Vera Cruz for Van Guld, the Black Corsair hears rumors that his lady love, who he thought was dead, may be alive.

Although the Black Corsair behaves nobly, he doesn’t seem at all disturbed by the mayhem wrought upon innocent people by his pirate friends. Perhaps Salgari was attempting to portray pirates more realistically than is usual in adventure fiction. He seems, however, to have an admiration for what are essentially bloodthirsty cutthroats. I don’t think I’m applying my 21st century standards here, because I’ve managed to enjoy many other adventure novels, including ones about pirates. The characters in this one are cardboard figures being put through their paces.

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Review 1372: The Greenlanders

The Greenlanders took me quite a while to read, and that wasn’t because it wasn’t interesting. My hardcopy book was 558 pages, which isn’t that long a book for me. The type was small, however, and the pages dense, so that I would guess it normally would be closer to 1000 pages long.

This novel is also unusual because it is written in the tradition of the Nordic sagas. Although it centers on the activities of the family of Asgeir Gunnarsson, it also tells of other events taking place in the country, beginning in about 1345 until roughly 1415. Because of this style, the actions of the people are described, but there is little conventional character delineation.

Much of the novel has to do with the events spawned by a feud between Asgeir Gunnarsson’s family and that of their nearest neighbor, Ketil Erlendsson. Asgeir and Ketil are wealthy landowners, but life on Greenland is hard, and no landowner can be assured he or someone in his household will not starve during a difficult winter.

In fact, the Greenlanders don’t know it, but in the mid-14th century, they are at the beginning of a long downhill slide for the country. Although ships used to arrive with relative frequency from Norway or Iceland, at the beginning of the novel, the first ship arrives in 10 years. The Greenlanders hear that much of Europe has been overcome by the plague, and so many people have died that the church has not been able to send priests to Greenland nor has the bishop been replaced.

In fact, Greenland has already suffered some diminishment. There used to be settlers in the Western Settlement but now it is deserted. As time progresses, more and more farms in the Eastern Settlement are abandoned as farmers become unable to support their households. The novel documents famines, illnesses, outlawry, the loss of laws and the country law-keeping institutions as well as weddings, births, and deaths.

Despite its nontraditional approach, I was deeply absorbed by this book and particularly by the events in the lives of Gunnar Asgeirsson, Asgeir’s son, and his daughter Margret Asgeirsdottir. I was particularly struck by how similar the lives of these 14th century Greenlanders were to those of the Icelanders described in Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. I think I mentioned in my review of that book that I assumed it was set in the Middle Ages, only to be floored when I realized it was set in the 20th century.

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Review 1370: Unsheltered

Unusual for Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered is a dual time-frame novel, changing centuries every other chapter. The setting is the same, though, the odd town of Vineland, New Jersey.

In the present time, Willa’s family has discovered that the house she inherited in Vineland is no asset. Both she and her husband, Iano, have recently lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Willa’s magazine failed, and so did the college in West Virginia where Iano was tenured. When he finally got hired in an inferior level for a one-year position, the inherited house nearby had seemed like a godsend. But now she has found that it is falling down, with part of the old house not even on a foundation, and too expensive to fix.

To make matters worse, they are the only people in the family who offered to take in Iano’s ornery dying father. Their daughter, Tig, has also unexpectedly returned from a year in Cuba. Finally, their son Zeke’s partner has committed suicide, leaving him in an apartment he can’t afford with a baby son. Willa and Iano offer him a place to stay, but what he wants is to leave his son with them.

In mid-19th century Vineland, Thatcher Greenwood has moved his new bride, Rose, back into the house she grew up in. They are also living with her mother, Aurelia, and young sister, Polly. Thatcher is delighted with his wife but is soon to find that they don’t share the same values. His position as a science teacher pays very little, but Rose and her mother continue to demand elegancies that belong to their former life, before Rose’s father went broke.

Next door, Thatcher meets Mary Treat. Rose knows her as the poor woman who was deserted by her husband, but Thatcher learns that she is a scientist, whose correspondents include Charles Darwin.

Vineland was founded as a sort of utopia by Captain Landis, but Thatcher begins to see the cracks in that utopia. One of them is his employer, who will not allow him to teach anything more than rote memorization and hates most recent scientific theories, particularly Darwin’s.

Both of these main characters are concerned with keeping shelter over their families’ heads, but while Kingsolver links the stories through Willa’s growing interest in Mary Treat, she is also able to draw many parallels between the two times. The present uncertainty in the poor economy of the Eastern Seaboard she compares to the uncertainty in the lives of Vineland’s population, of workers promised much by a man who can repossess their property if they fail. An unmistakable political figure in the present day, nicknamed by Willa The Bullhorn, bears a metaphorical resemblance to Landis, who is essentially a conman. The main characters’ housing insecurity stands for the insecurity of the entire population as a result of climate change and the death of the American dream. Kingsolver has lots to talk about.

I’m not so sure how much I liked the dual narrative. I was far more interested in the present-time story than I was in the older one. Kingsolver seemed to want to write about Mary Treat, but Treat features more as an important secondary character. And I have to say that some of Willa’s discussions with her daughter and her ruminations about those discussions border on the didactic (which we know has been a fault of Kingsolver in some other books).

Still, it is great to have another book out by Kingsolver. She can be hit or miss, but I have very fond memories of some of her books.

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