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review 2017-10-30 15:17
DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING

 

Praised by Alice Munro (whose name is on the back cover), Do Not Say We Have Nothing earned Madeline Thien the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for most promising Canadian writer under the age of 30. Then went on to win a Carnegie Medal, the Scotiabank Prize and the Stanford Travel Writing Award (Wikipedia 2016), but although shortlisted for The Man-Booker and the Bailey’s Prize, it didn’t win. I was shocked. The reviews I’d read suggested a forgone conclusion…It speaks to the humanity that continues even in the harshest, most self-destructively paranoid conditions, and it shows how the savagery of destroying culture comes hand-in-hand with the destruction of human bodies. For this reason alone, I hope it wins the Man Booker prize…(Boland 2016)
 
I found it compelling, important. I thought a close second read would determine why it hasn’t gained a glittering crown. Long, with a rambling, fractured narrative, covers many aspects of the Maoist revolution. The story is told in sewn-on patches, revealed slowly with huge difficultly, almost like a labour. This immediately felt right…as if structure and style represent the dreadful hardships the Chinese people experienced.
 
Do Not Say We Have Nothing  opens in Vancouver in 1990. Marie’s father has killed himself in Hong Kong jumping from a high building, and Marie (also called Li-Ling) and her mother take in a young woman from China. Ai Ming arrives at their home without ‘papers’. 10 year-old Marie is enamoured by the teenager, but ask as she might, cannot discover what has happened to her. Marie tries to get closer by showing the girl something that belonged to her dead father…
 
The notebook with her father’s writing, the Book of Records, was easy to find. I picked it up, knowing it would please her. But when I offered the notebook to Ai-ming, she ignored me. 
I tried again. “Ma told me it’s a great adventure, that someone goes to America and someone else goes to the desert. She said that the person who made this copy is a master calligrapher.”
Ai-ming emerged from her coat. “It’s true my father had excellent handwriting, but he wasn’t a master calligrapher. And anyway, no matter how beautiful the Book of Records is, it’s only a book. It isn’t real.”
“That’s okay. If you read it to me, I can improve my Chinese. That’s real.”
She smiled. After a few moments of turning pages, she returned the notebook to the bedcover, which had become a kind of neutral ground between us. “It’s not a good idea,” she said. “This is Chapter 17. It’s useless to start halfway, especially if this is the only chapter you have.”
“You can summarise the first sixteen chapters. I’m sure you know them.”
“Impossible!” But she was laughing…(Thien 2016)
 
Politics, time, place and generations of characters are intertwined within the story, and echoed in the handwritten ‘Record’ of the extract above. It was like reading a half-lost Chinese legend, or a guide to survival under hopeless oppression. I loved the way stories and music are powerful threads connecting the lives and times of a Chinese family. Often, I felt I was reading Dostoyevski. I agreed it wasa beautiful, sorrowful workthe mind is never still while reading it…(Senior 2016)
 
At the core of the story is a true event. In 1968, the director of Shanghai Conservatory of Music, He Luting, was dragged from his office by Red Guards, physically abused in front of TV cameras and accused of ‘non-revolutionary thinking’ over his  approbation of Western classical music. He did not confess, as most did, instead, crying out, “shame on you for lying!” (Isobel Hilton 2016). Thien incorporates this into her story.
 
I have this idea that … maybe, a long time ago, the Book of Records was set in a future that hadn’t yet arrived,” one characters says (Thien 2016). The covert record, written by hand and passed secretly from writer to writer, allows them to express what they cannot tell. Almost entirely unrevealed on the page, I thought the notebook was a metaphor for the half-lost history of three generations. 
 
Bach’s Goldberg Variations (always played by pianist Glenn Gould), becomes the score in our head. – the words echoing the complex counterpoints in the music. It’s a symbol, I believe, of how brilliant creativity is suppressed and punished in the Cultural Revolution (CR), but also of how music is universal. Early in the novel, Marie says…I was drawn toward it, as keenly is if someone were pulling me by the hand. The counterpoint, holding together composer, musicians and even silence, the music, with its spiralling waves of grief and rapture…(Thien 2016) She might be talking about the story she’s about to unfold.
 
Tieananmen Square in the 80s
We only find out Ai-Ming’s full story as the book progresses to its climax in Tiananmen Square. However, this is the beauty of close reading, and doing so made me sit up. There are a lot of clues in that first chapter in Vancouver. I had tried to keep them in my head on my first read, but it was almost impossible. The sweep of the book wipes them away. It’s only at the end, as things come to a head, that we learn how Ai-Ming and Marie are intrinsically connected.
 
Marie narrates short sections of the novel as an adult, in the present day. She’s become a mathematics professor, which links with the contrapuntal nature of music and story. She’s still seeking the truth about her family’s history. Meanwhile, the lives of the families of two sisters over fifty years of Chinese revolution is revealed in a wide-ranging viewpoint, allowing one after another of the characters to catch and take up the tale. It’s never clear who is in charge of this omniscient-like third person. It might be Ai Ming, remembering all she knows of the Book of Records, even adding to it. Maybe this is all Marie’s story, told at the end of her quest. Or perhaps the overarching view is Thien’s herself.
 
I became intimately involved with these lives, the ambiguities of the story, and the glorious sounds of music; Chinese and European, violin and piano. From Vancouver we go back to the colour and gaiety of the 1940’s, where two teenaged sisters entertain by singing in provincial teahouses. We follow Big Mother Knife and Swirl through the land reforms, re-educations, the arrival of the Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution, and on, to the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
 
Big Mother has three children, including a boy called Sparrow, who becomes a musical prodigy. Swirl and her husband, Wen the Dreamer, have a girl, Zhuli. Wen is the ‘master calligrapher’ and principle contributor to the Book of Records. He and Swirl are caught up in the punishments devised to expose counter-revolutionaries… anyone deviating from the norm of communist orthodoxy. They are tortured and given hard labour in a desert area of China, where they barely survive. The young Zhuli is sent to find her aunt in Shanghai. She takes up the violin under the influence of her cousin, the shy composer, Sparrow, and is destined for great things, until the Cultural Revolution rises up. At the Conservatory, Zhuli becomes unable to cope with the humiliations, brain-washings and destruction of music and musical instruments….students began writing essays asking, “What good is this music, these empty enchantments, that only entrench the bourgeoisie and isolate the poor?”(Thien 2016). Some musicians form a clandestine resistance group, and this seems to finally topple Zhuli. She kills herself. 
 
In Moa’s China, history is manipulated or suppressed unless it toes the party line. And so, from the safety of Canada, Thein has attempted to tell the entire truth, using music as her theme. It feels off-key, literally, to write about musicians when so much of the history is political. They quietly go about their business of writing, playing and teaching music. They have brilliant minds, but are quiet people, not necessarily politically articulate.
 
Sparrow becomes deeply intimate with a piano student, Kai, whose family didn’t survive the starvation times of the Great Leap Forward. But Sparrow is unable to consummate their love, perhaps because of his timid reserve, perhaps due to the shock of Zhuli’s death. Kai is determined to live whatever the cost. Ruthlessly, he compromises his art and prospers as a musician, lauded by the establishment, while Sparrow, who cannot dishonour classical music, is forced to leave the Conservatory, reassigned to work in a radio factory for thirty years.
 
And what of the Book of Records? In an interview, Thien explains…It’s a book with no beginning, no middle and no end, in which the characters are seeing an alternative China where they recognise mirrors of themselves and which they write themselves into.” She is speaking literally as well as metaphorically. “The act of copying is different in China because part of the art of calligraphy is that you learn to write as the masters did. It’s a lot about breath and pressure and line. (Armistead 2016)
 
When I surfed the net, I discovered the notebook is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of pre-history, Shiji or the Historical Records. Like the novel and the notebook, the Shiji is non-chronological, fractured…overlapping units that interpret rather than document. Completed in 91BCE  it was kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had had its author, Sima Qian, the ‘grand astrologer’ castrated. (Vioatti 2014).
 
I followed one family for sixty years, across vast Chinese landscapes, puzzling about the ‘book of records’, carrying Baroque music in my head through 450 pages of traumatic experiences and moral complexities. Although it’s not an easy book to read, and I wasn’t alone in finding I always wanted to read on… Thien's reach—though epic —does not extend beyond her capacity, resulting in a lovely fugue of a book…(Chalfant 2016).
 
China has always been a dangerous place to state the truth, rather than toe the line. Then chose characters with great gifts, extraordinary yet quite ordinary, who fall foul of the absurd doctrines of a regime. Through them, I understood the consequences of Mao’s revolution on both the Chinese national identity, and the personal identities of its people.
 
The duplicitous Kai finally agrees to help Sparrow’s daughter, Ai-Ming, to escape China, but soon after Marie meets her, Ai Ming disappears into the USA. Marie is still searching at the end of the book. As if both girls, mirror-images of the girls who sang in the teahouses, resonate what the previous generation had to go through; to disappear emotionally or physically, or to wander, in search of reasons and identity. There’s no final answers, especially as to why it did not win the Booker. That is a puzzle as great as the Book of Records.
 

 

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text 2017-05-14 14:28
Off the Peg; how Ottessa Moshfegh wrote Eileen



If you’ve been thinking of dashing off a thriller in the hope of great success in the book market, then I would have been the first person to stop you. “Never jump on a bandwagon”, I’d have said, along with, “ignore books like Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel. You can’t ‘dash off’ great writing.  But Ottessa Moshfegh ignored such sane suggestions and went right ahead and wrote Aileen, one of the best Mann-Booker short-listed novels I’ve read in a long time. 
 
After writing with a novella and beginning a debut collection of short stories, she decided not to “wait 30 years to be discovered” and came clean about her writing methods In a recent interview. “I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined… I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.” 
 
Having worked through Watt’s advice, she wrote for 60 days to produce an ‘off the peg’ novel. But Moshfegh is too good an author to churn our rubbish. “It turned into a work of its own”, she explains.
 
Soon as I opened Eileen, I was hooked on the wonderful voice created in this disturbingly dark novel. The narrator is old, reminiscing the past. It’s 1964 and Aileen, at twenty-six, is already on the shelf. She works as a clerk in Moorhead, a penal institution for young men, where she's in lust with Randy, one of the guards; off duty she stalks him, knowing full well he’d never look at her and convinced she would never agree to have sex with him anyway…her first time “would be by force”.
 
 
http://themanbookerprize.com/books/eileen-by-ottessa-moshfegh
Aileen's self-loathing forbids her to wash regulaly. She dresses in her dead mother’s old clothes and eats frugally, believing herself to be fat and ugly inside and out, purging her system with laxatives. She joins her drunken father each night in drowning out the cruel world. But secretly, she’s saving her father’s pension and dreams of escape.

Moshfegh knows precisely what an unlikable character she’s created. In Vice Magazine she said; “My writing lets people scrape up against their own depravity, but at the same time it’s very refined … It’s like seeing Kate Moss take a shit.” To a degree she seems to be writing from experience; in the past she’s had both drink and eating problems.
 
The story is told through the device of the interior monologue, or if you prefer, the “retrospective first-person”. The sensation of reading is that of a half-whispered story over a cup of tea…the need to tell someone the secrets of your past, before you die. Reading the first half of the novel as my train pummelled over the Pennine way (and the second half as it roared back to West Wales), it was if Eileen reached one of her thin wrists out from the pages and dragged me into the last week of her life before she left her small town and escaped to New York. 
 
Eileen sees the world from a bleak perspective which has a constant edge of humour. In the packed carriage of my train, I experienced those embarrassing moments – laughing out aloud – time and again. Eileen is a very funny novel. The black irony kept me gripped as much as the promise that her drear life was leading to dreadful violence.
 
Right from the start, I knew Eileen was not going to come out of this journey as the innocent victim. “This is not a love story”, Aileen says. “I was not a lesbian”, and, “I didn’t eat good food until my second husband”  In a delicious nod to Chekhov’s foreshadowing device; “Before I go on describing the events of that Saturday, I should mention the gun.” She hints that there will be terror and bloodshed, and I believed her implicitly because these are her memories, and her urge to confess is palpable.
 
The festive season is steadily approaching; the contents page tells us that it will all over by Christmas Eve, but the sad festivities are subverted wonderfully by Eileen’s repressively dark mind. It’s her job to decorate the institution’s Christmas tree, while at home, there is not a bauble to be seen, just a dead mouse in her glove compartment.
 
At this point, Rebecca, a stunning, red-headed graduate, comes to work at Moorhead. Eileen is swept up into a kind of obsession when Rebecca shows an interest in her. Both girls are drawn to an inmate, Polk, who has killed his policeman father. Eileen watches Polk masterbate while in solitary confinement, but Rebecca has access to his notes and, in her role as the new psychologist, believes she can penetrate the young man’s mind to find the truth about him, a decision that is the catalyst to action.
 
So, if you’re about to start a novel using Watt’s 90 day, or any other formulaic method, do read this book first, checking it out against the standard tips, like Joanna Penn’s: Grab the reader by the throat, have a crime, don’t write likeable characters, have an ending that slaps you in the face. Huge ticks with these. Or my own tip: rock the boat half-way through, as Moshfegh does with her Rebecca character. 
 
This is a psychological thriller, and that’s given Moshfegh good sales, a popular following and some great reviews – Anthony Cummins in the Telegraph was left “dumbstruck by her sly, almost wicked storytelling genius”. But she also has her critics. Lydia Kiesling in her Guardian review thought that; “there is something about this novel that, like its heroine, is not quite right…The prose clunks; Eileen is a little too in love with her own awfulness.” Yes, I noted that failing too, early in the text. Things like, I was very unhappy and angry all the time. Moshfegh has fallen into the trap of ‘telling not showing’. But it’s a very little slip, the sort we all make at some point when writing hundreds of pages of story. Mostly, the book is all ‘show', a vivid picture of 60’s USA, of the edges of society, of mental health, and of how easy it is to lose one’s own integrity, or have it stolen away.
 
Eileen might be thought of as an unreliable narrator, but I found nothing but the truth in the heated depths of the text. I believed in her completely. She may be flawed, but she felt like an intensely real, if bleak, creation. In that, I seem to agree with Moshfegh; “Eileen is not perverse. I think she’s totally normal … I haven’t written a freak character; I’ve written an honest character.”

And honest character who has committed the most awful crime, that is...

 

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text 2017-04-01 09:35
Murder, They Wrote – Three Novelists Writing about Murder

MURDER, THEY WROTE  –– THREE NOVELISTS WRITING ABOUT MURDER

 

When Graeme Macrea Burnet was interviewed on radio news, he was asked how he felt about being shortlisted for the 2016 Man-Booker with his crime novel.

“It’s not a crime novel,” he replied. “It’s a literary novel about crime.”

I have to confess, as a crime novelist, that did put my back up, a little bit. I don’t believe it’s for writers to announce they’ve created a literary novel…that’s for posterity to decide. In my view, ‘literature’ is something that lasts and grows as it ages…books like Homer’s Odyssey, Orwell's Animal Farm or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bibles which I blogged about here. But it got me thinking. His Bloody Project (Contraband 2015) cannot yet, in my view, be literature. So is it crime fiction? 

 

The great P D James said that a good crime novel should also be a good novel. All human life is found in the killing of one human by another. So writing about murder surely is always crime fiction! I’m going to look at three recent books that I loved reading to find out if that’s true.

 

Belinda Bauer

http://www.belindabauer.co.uk

Belinda Bauer doesn’t seem to have any qualms about calling herself a writer of crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her work on my blog, and here she is again, with her 6th novel, The Beautiful Dead (Bantam Press 2016). I loved her first book, Badlands, but I did feel the end was a bit weak, a bit unbelievable. This time, no worries about that! I loved the way Bauer took a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a pair of handcuffs, which the main protagonist, TV crime reporter Eve Singer, has become obsessed with as she’s tracked and taunted by a serial killer she’s featuring on her news items. I expected them to be used in some way to secure her life when it was eventually under intense threat, as I knew it would be! But when those handcuffs were put to use on pg 319 of the book, I stood from my seat and crowed in joy. What a twist! What a perfect ploy! A great, twisting surprise is essential in a crime novel. But Bauer also delivers elegant description, strong metaphor and deep investigation of the human condition. She examines what being a killer is – how close each of use could get to murder. A crime novel? Decidedly, but great, contemporary fiction, too. 

 

Helen Dunmore is known for her lyrical poetry and her award-winning fiction, including the best-selling The Siege,  which is set during the Nazis' 1941 winter siege on Leningrad  So I wasn’t surprised to find that in her most recent book she turned her hand to a cold war thriller, set in England in the early 1960’s. In Exposure Penguin, 2016)  Although she uses three points of view…the hardened old double agent, the fresh, young candidate pushing a pen in the office of MI6, and his wife, mother of two young children, a typical stay-at-home mum, but a woman with a sharp mind. The shock of the killing towards the end of the book demonstrated for me that  one of our most outstanding writers (Good Housekeeping review) can

‘do’ murder and do it well, focusing on the victims, both of the spying industry, and of the machinations of corrupt individuals.  Is this literary fiction? Or a spy thriller? I can’t honestly see why it can’t be both.

 

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project didn’t win the Booker in the end. But Burnet’s book is the one that I enjoyed the most from the shortlist. I enjoyed it so much, that I now have a little more sympathy with his comment about literary fiction.

His novel is centred around a vicious triple murder – a man, his teenaged daughter and his baby son – by an angry young boy who lived in the same crofting community in 19th Century northwest Scotland. Burnet uses several point-of-views to create the novel, starting with the gripping account by Roderick Macrea as he languishes in jail, waiting for his trial to begin. This account is the gruelling and bitter story of his short life as a crofter. Although he shows promise at school, he leaves early to start working with his widowed father, who is perhaps a bit lacking in the smarts department, unlike his son. Life is backbreaking, crushing. And the powers who own the land turn a cold, heartless face away from the punishing routine that puts meagre food in the crofter’s mouths. Very soon, as the story is related, it becomes clear why Roddy kills. He is drawn to do so, from the moment he has to batter an injured sheep to a humane death. The second half of the book are accounts from the defence lawyer and the early 19th psychologist he has called in, and from newspaper articles about the trial.

 

I could not put this book down. Firstly, I needed to know why and how the murders happened. Lastly, I needed to know if his kindly lawyer managed to secure Roddy clemency from the gallows.

Is His Bloody Project a piece of crime fiction, Mr Burnet? I would say so. A piece beautifully written, and a deeply investigated book which looks into the nature of murder. It's also a book that may stay loved over generations and thence become ‘literature’, but at the moment, it’s crime fiction.

 

A romping good read, but also, like Bauer’s and Dunmore’s latest fictions, it’s about murder. They’ve all written about the deadliest of crimes, and I cannot see what is wrong with admitting that they’ve ended up with great stories that are crime fiction.

 

 
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text 2015-04-12 09:08
The £30,000 Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction

The £30,000 Bailey Women’s Prize for fiction often has a far more readable list of nominations than either the Costa or the Man-Booker – celebrating, as it does, "excellence, originality and accessibility".

Here are the books on the longlist…not too long, either for the avid reader to gobble up… 

In KTW order of merit: 

 (drum roll please:) 

 

  • Ali Smith - How to be Both (winner of the Costa Novel prize) 
  • Sarah Waters - The Paying Guests  (British Book Awards Author of the Year
  • Anne Tyler - A Spool of Blue Thread (Pulitzer Prize winner)
  • Emma Healey - Elizabeth is Missing (winner of the Costa 1st Novel prize)
  • Samantha Harvey - Dear Thief  (previously shortlisted)
  • Rachel Cusk - Outline  (previously shortlisted)
  • Xiaolu Guo - I Am China (previously shortlisted)
  • Lissa Evans - Crooked Heart (previous Orange Prize shortlist) 
  • Jemma Wayne - After Before (debut novel)
  • Sara Taylor - The Shore (debut novel)
  • PP Wong - The Life of a Banana (debut novel)
  • Patricia Ferguson - Aren't We Sisters?
  • Emily St John Mandel - Station Eleven
  • Grace McCleen - The Offering
  • Sandra Newman - The Country of Ice Cream Star
  • Heather O'Neill - The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
  • Laline Paull - The Bees
  • Marie Phillips - The Table of Less Valued Knights
  • Rachel Seiffert - The Walk Home
  • Kamila Shamsie - A God in Every Stone

Previous winners include personal favourites of mine, such as Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed

Madeline Miller, previous winner

 ThingThe Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, Zadie Smith for On Beauty,

 

Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, Anne Michael’s Fugitive PiecesHalf a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Andrea Levy’s Small Island.

 

I loveHow to Be Both by Ali Smith. It’s almost two stories, intertwined, with more than 500 years separating the characters - one a Renaissance painter, secretly female, the other a modern teenager living in the UK and desperately in need of some love.  Smith suggests you can read them in either order, but I would strongly suggest you start with 'camera' not 'eye' as you're far less likely to give up! "As always, Smith is being playful and inventive 's work. How to be both, almost  eludes description, which I’m sure was the very effect Smith was aiming at. It’s well worth the slight struggle although not my favourite; The Accidental will remain that.

Sarah Waters, in The Paying Guests,  combines many thematic ingredients class, gender, economic dependence, morality, suspense, and of course lesbian romance. This story is perhaps less well plotted than her others; she so well known for her amazing twists that I felt quite let down when I finally realized there wasn’t really going to be one. Even so, powerfully written. 

Anne Tyler is a perennial favourite of mine, right since I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/03/14/books/funny-wis-and-true.html. So far my favourite is probably Patchwork Planet, so I can’t wait to get started on  A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth novel to see if it can top my personal poll.

Also on the list is Emma Healey's Elizabeth is Missing . This is what my agent calls a ‘high concept novel’. In other words it defies the traditions and orthodoxes of crime fiction but is, none-the-less, a complete page turner, which, like everyone else, I couldn’t put down.

This year's judges include the prize's first winner Helen Dumore, Channel 4 News's Cathy Newman, columnist and broadcaster Grace Dent and Laura Bates, who founded The Everyday Sexism Project. Chair, Shami Chakrabarti, said this year was "particularly strong" for women's fiction. The judges must now whittle these 20 books down to a shortlist of six, before choosing an overall winner to be announced on 3rd June 2015. http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/2015/baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-announce-2015-longlist-3   I wish them a clear head as they deliberate between these fine pieces of fiction.

 
 
Source: kitchentablewriters.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/revealed-20th-bailey-prize-for-fiction.html
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review 2015-04-12 09:00
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”http://www.picador.com/authors/jessie-burton

 

When I read an aphorism  like that, I know I've found a strong heroine who isn't going to disappoint by going all fluffy in the presence of testosterone-ridden muscles and sharp, male jawlines.

 

The Miniaturist is set in Amsterdam, at the end of the 17th Century. I was rather expecting Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracey Chevalier, HarperCollins,1999) all over again, which, for me, was a beautifully written romance, but a romance, none the less. The endorsements to this debut novel, which are plastered all over the cover, should have told me otherwise. “Full of surprises” says SJ Watson. “Fabulously gripping” says the Observer. 

 

I was hoping for exquisite detail…miniaturist detail, in fact, and that I got, but I also found I was reading an absolute page-turner. I  turned the pages of this book all the way from Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales, to Barnsley, in Yorkshire, on some very slow, long-and-winding, cross-country trains. I hardly noticed the dark, satanic mills, the still snow-capped Pennines or the little towns that moved past my carriage window, because I was in Holland, where silk rustled and sumptuous feasts were consumed as deals were done for the slave sugar of the West Indies…and Nella, eighteen, innocent but savvy, hopes that married life will be the tulip bed she dreamed of as a child. Romance of any kind fails to blossom, and she soon discovers that Jonhannes, the wealthy merchant she’s married, has secrets which will lead them into escalating danger.  In fact, the only the thing that her husband gives her in their marriage is a cabinet house; a doll-house sized, but vastly expensive, replica of their home in Amsterdam. An elusive miniaturist creates tiny items to fill the house, each of which eerily predict the shocks Nella begins to experience.

 

Despite the fact that The Miniaturist soon became an international best seller, I've taken my time about  reading it because my first encounter was last summer’s Guardian review – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/29/the-miniaturist-jessie-burton-review

 

Rachel Cook was not particularly nice to Jessie Burton's first book, and I have to admit, she put me off. But the word-in-the-library was of a wicked page-turner, so in the end I threw reviews to the wind and read it. The Miniaturist has flaws, that's undeniable. I understand exactly why Cooke says, “somehow it fails to convince. Again and again, I found myself thinking: that would not happen. We are expected to take so much on trust…Emotionally, they move from A to Z in the blink of an eye, and nothing in between.”

 

photo of Jessie Burton by Katherine Rose

 
 

In writers’ terms, this single problem is the result of a little bundle of plotting issues, which beset us all, and which take time and effort to overcome; implausibility. Like Rachel Cooke, there were times I felt like echoing Victor Meldrew, from One Foot in the Grave, crying; I don’t believe it!

 

I’m not going to tell you which bits of this book I couldn’t believe. It’s a cracking read, with a vivid period setting, distinctive, even striking characters and a story so seductive and outrageous, it drags you in by the collar of your coat. But, having read the book yourself, you might, as a writer, want to ask yourself what you can learn from its problems. Are there sections of your own stories that are implausible? And if so, what can you do to alter that, so that your eventual readers don’t turn into grouchy Victor Meldrews who long to throw your novel across train carriages?

 

Naturally you want the reader to feel fully committed to what’s happening on the page. But some confusion arises between being convincing and suspending disbelief, which is what happens when readers are so caught up with the fiction, that they are prepared to go along with what the narrator is telling them, even when it patently could not happen ‘in real life’. New writers mistakenly believe that they can be as implausible as they please, and readers will suspend disbelief when reading their work. Completing a fictional tale isn’t a magic key to the good will of the reader. They will suspend disbelief for you, but you have to work hard to gain their trust beforehand. I recommend five strategies for this problem; 

 

  1. The reader needs to feel grounded within the story. Overload of information, or conversely, lack of relevant information (usually because the writers hasn’t taken into consideration that the reader isn’t familiar with what the writer is telling them), are two major factors. The reader needs time and help to absorb the details of the story. In The Miniaturist, Burton researches her time-period very well, even adding a glossary. But, Nella, as Rachel Cooke points out… “has a sensibility more akin to that of a 21st-century teenager than a 17th-century one: outspoken, determined, reflexively feminist.” This cut me adrift from her as I read – was she really from the 17th Century?
  2. Communication with your reader. Stories (or parts of a story) appear implausible because the writer has assumed that the reader ‘will understand’ what they are writing about. Don’t ever assume that; check as you go that your plot is comprehendible and that there are clear links as you move along it, filling in details that will help your reader to keep up with plot developments. It annoyed me, when Nella recalled, towards the novel’s end, all the ‘thrilling conversations’ she and Johannes had, because the reader hadn’t been privy to any of these. We’d barely seen them communicate and when they did, Johannes would peremptorily curtail the dialogue. And yet, Nella seems to gain an affinity with him that I could not credit. 
  3. Character development and identification. It’s often the character, especially the narrator, who convinces the reader the story is believable. Your characters should be well-developed on the page, so that the reader can identify, possibly emphasize with them. This links closely with communication above; it will be the narrator who communicates the plot and fills in those all-important linking details. Rachel Cooke writes; “We know their tastes, but little of what lies in their hearts; we know all about their failings, but their motivation remains elusive.” 
  4. Cause and effect. When the causes of character action are solidly imbedded in the story, leading directly to the naturally realized effects, the story is likely to feel convincing and believable. There is one plot-line in Jessie Burton’s novel which is never fully explained, and as that concerns the title of the story…the miniaturist who makes strangely predictive furninture for the cabinet house…I felt decidedly let down by this. However, I must commend Burton for the ending to her book. I thought her denouement and final flourishes were cracking – not only plausible, but shocking and perfectly balanced. 

 

  • Motivation should always be driven by character emotion.  Cook writes, “I had the sense that the novel's characters were simply figures (from a doll's house, perhaps) to be moved around on an Amsterdam-shaped board.” I agreed At times, Burton concentrates too much on her fabulous plot, and forgets the emotional motivation of her characters.  Motivating your characters successfully isn’t easy, but here’s a little template that will help you make that check:
  1. The author wants certain things to happen. This creates poor motivation.
  2. The actions further a character’s objectives. This creates strong motivation. 

 

 

Please don’t let me put you off reading this amazing book. The Miniaturist is a popular choice with bookclubs, and I can see why. It would generate discussion about the era and setting, the story and characters, but especially the themes and events of the book, which are unsettling and powerful. And anyone searching for aphorisms will find an abundance within this story, which is why I’ve chosen Burton as my “Quote of the Month”.
 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

Source: kitchentablewriters.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/jessie-burton-ktw-quote-of-month.html
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