Two excellent novels plus a sop

I didn’t expect anything beyond it being published: that had always been the dream, then for it to become a bestseller… I hadn’t even thought about it. Debut novelist, Jessie Burton

A great first novel set in historic Amsterdam

By Ralph McAllister

Jessie BurtonTHE MINIATURIST by Jessie Burton may well be one of my books of the year. This is a first novel by a young English writer and is shot through with brilliance.

Nella arrives from the countryside to the corrupt and Calvinistic 17th century Amsterdam.
She has been betrothed to a merchant, 20 years older than her, she has to fit into a bizarre house on the Herengracht run by her husband’s sinister sister Marin.

The strong plot line follows Nella as she tries to understand why her marriage is not consummated, instead the only act of kindness from her already estranged husband is a replica in miniature of the Herengracht house, in effect a doll’s house.

The MiniaturistNella gets more and more out of her depth as mysterious gifts arrive for the interior of the doll’s house, some of which seem to predict what is going to happen in reality. A horrific series of events leads to a trial of terrifying bigotry.

This is, at once, a mystery, a fantasy, a coming of age novel and an exploration of intolerance, all combined with an authorial control which augurs well for Burton’s future.

Of course I was immediately on side as the book is set in streets and areas of Amsterdam which I know like the back of my hand.

Highly recommended.

Ian McEwan in top form
Ian McEwanAs too is THE CHILDREN ACT  by one of my favourite writers Ian McEwan.

I often think that if McEwan were to rewrite the telephone directory he would still make it interesting.

This time, after tilts at the medical world in SATURDAY and science in SOLAR to name but two of his previous topics, he takes the case of justice and puts it under his penetrating focus.

Fiona is a High Court Judge in London whose husband wants to have an affair with his young secretary, with Fiona’s knowledge. After decades of marriage Fiona is unsure how to respond.

The Children ActShe is also forming judgements on complex cases in Court where she hopes to offer “reasonableness to hopeless situations.” The latest concerns a 17 year old Jehovah’s Witness who does not want to have a blood transfusion which will save his live. His parents agree with him but the doctors believe that they know better and should operate.

The devil is in the detail as with so much of McEwan’s fine works. The contrast between the boy’s idealistic youthful aspirations and Fiona’s groping to cope with matrimonial aging betrayal is placed before us with the writer’s usual incisive and wonderful prose.

Again, highly recommended.

Top author but a publisher fraud
On a lighter note, though the title suggests otherwise, THE ASSASSINATION OF MARGARET THATCHER by Hilary Hilary Mantel MTMantel brings together 10 short stories from the twice winning Man Booker author.

Scandal erupted last month in London when the Daily Telegraph refused to publish the title story for fear that readers would be offended by the content. The Guardian picked it up immediately and published.

The story is OK as an aging writer lets a ‘plumber’ into her house shortly before Thatcher is due outside in the park, the view from the apartment being perfect for murderous intent.

Hilary MantelI must declare that I was disappointed in the publication. All the other stories had been published previously, one dating back to the 1990’s, and hardly representative of someone “at the peak of her powers“.

The thought did occur that this was a publisher’s sop to her thousands of readers who, like me, wait with impatience, the third part of her WOLF HALL, BRING UP THE BODIES trilogy.

You might want to save your money for that one.

Good reading

Ralph