I read The Miniaturist a few weeks ago, having let it sit on my bookshelf for some months. I had heard wonderful things about it – from the beautifully crafted writing to the exciting plot. However, I had not found the right time to sit and read it with enough time to enjoy what I had been told was a complex writing style and heavy plot. I ended up buying The Muse a few weeks ago and this was a big push to finally read The Miniaturist. They are two stand alone novels but I wanted to read Burton’s debut first, to be able to compare the two and see how her writing has changed and developed.
The Miniaturist was published in 2014 and is set in Amsterdam in 1686/7. The novel is inspired by Petronella Oortman’s doll’s house. Nella is a young woman who is sent by her mother to marry Johannes, a man she has not previously met. She moves away from her provincial home to live with him and his sister in Amsterdam, coming under great pressure to impress society. The book is fantastically detailed about life in Amsterdam at that time and the description brings to life the city and the people who lived there. I found the book engrossing from the beginning and I wanted to know where the book would end. Throughout The Miniaturist, Burton plays on the uncanny, using the ghostly figures within the doll’s house and the power of the miniaturist to heighten the events of the main characters life. There was a suggestion of the supernatural early on in the book, yet the novel was based on truth and historical evidence. I was intrigued by this element of the supernatural – the suggestion of warped religious beliefs, the possibility that there was something otherworldly about Nella’s husband and the doll’s house that he bought for her. Instead, the only otherness about Johannes was something very real and the doll’s house was soon debunked as anything supernatural and unfortunately the plot fell flat in the final third because it reached its highest point of interest too early. Once everything was lost and these points of interest removed, the stakes were not high enough to hold my interest in the same way. There was no way for things to be reconciled as the reader would wish and so I felt frustrated, it felt as though Burton had completed all of her best writing in the first half of the novel and run out of steam. It felt as though she was determined to make the novel historically accurate even at the expense of the potential for a more engaging and exciting piece of work if she had continued with the supernatural themes suggested earlier on. While I am sure that the ending would be historically accurate, it felt disappointing that Burton had embedded intrigue about the supernatural into her earlier chapters. What was suggested as supernatural, was actually the uncanny and a process of othering. The uncanny effect of the doll’s house on Nella psychologically and the othering of Johannes because of his life outside of Amsterdam as a merchant (elements of which I can’t explain without giving away the whole plot).
After reading The Miniaturist I was somewhat hesitant to delve into The Muse which is a beautifully bound book, the blurb promising a novel told between 1960’s England and 1930’s Spain. I was looking forward to the historical setting and Burton’s way of using words to craft beautiful writing, but I didn’t want to be disappointed by the ending again. However, I decided to give The Muse a go. Within the first chapter I was hooked on the voice of Odelle, a young woman from Tobago who is an aspiring writer whose talent is crippled by the racist tendencies of society at that time. She is given an opportunity at an art museum by the formidable Quick, an older British lady who takes a surprising interest in Odelle. Burton’s writing is just as well crafted as in The Miniaturist, if not better. She creates to vivid worlds in the 60’s and 30’s which work together to slowly make the story clear to the reader. The cast of characters is varied and each has their own strong, distinct voice. I like that Odelle was not perfect, she is flawed and at times does not treat others as she should, but the reader still wants her to succeed. Where Burton has definitely improved here is in the ending. The pace and intrigue is kept up until the final chapter. I wanted to know more and to keep turning the page until the very end. Burton has kept her beautiful writing style but the structure and plot here feel more through out. Although maintaining historical accuracy, this does not seem to impede her story as it did, in my opinion, within The Miniaturist. Burton manages her large number of characters very well, giving them each a chance to be, giving them voices and motives and a part to play. In the end, I had not guessed correctly what would happen and that is always important for me. I would highly recommend The Muse and not just because it is such a beautiful book.
It has been interesting to wait to read the debut of Jessie Burton until I could read her next book shortly after. Although I have included reviews here, I feel I have learnt a lot about the development of her writing across the two books. I would recommend both books for different reasons, but I am glad to say that she has maintained her success and improved with her second novel. I would also recommend for any writer to try and do this, reading multiple works by the same author to see how they have changed and improved.
I hope this has been helpful and would love to hear your thoughts either on these books or other follow up novels you have recently read – did the writer improve or lose whatever was special with their debut?