Category: Historical Fiction

All the Light We Cannot See

Cover image for All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

ISBN 978-1-4767-4658-6

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

In 1934, at the age of six, Marie-Laure LeBlanc lost her eyesight. Her father, Daniel LeBlanc, is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He builds Marie-Laure a scale model of their neighbourhood to help her navigate, and she spends her days with him at the Museum, reading Jules Verne in Braille. But their peaceful life is upset by the German invasion, and they flee the Nazi occupation of Paris, taking refuge in the coastal town of Saint-Malo.  Unbeknownst to Marie-Laure, the Museum has entrusted her father with an item from its collection. What Daniel LeBlanc does not know is if it is the real artefact, or one of the three duplicates that was made to serve as a decoy. Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner Pfennig is orphan who lost his mother to illness and his father to the coal mines of Zollverein. He has a passion for radios and math. When war comes, these skills draw him to the attention of the Reich, and he is selected to attend a special military prep school where talented young Germans are indoctrinated into National Socialism.

Anthony Doerr builds a sense of destiny into his sweeping, interwoven narrative of two children on opposite sides of World War II. Long before Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths finally come together in the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, Werner lies in bed at night with his repaired radio, picking up the distant broadcast of a French professor who discusses science. The voice belongs to Marie-Laure’s grandfather, who died in the Great War, but whose voice lives on in the recordings he produced. The book is overwrought with these tiny details that eventually flow together with a sense of inevitability. Doerr employs an extremely intricate time line that weaves back and forth through history at very short intervals—the chapters are usually only a handful of pages long, though sometimes it is only the point of view character and not the time period that changes. This works in the sense that the siege of Saint-Malo—with which the story begins and keeps returning to—is the part of the story that has the most tension, but it also makes the timeline of the story complicated to follow.

Marie-Laure is totally blind for most of the story, and her main form of navigation involves counting storm drains with her cane. Her father builds her two models, first a replica of their Paris neighbourbood, in the time before the war, and then a second when they flee to take refuge with his uncle in Saint-Malo on the Brittany Coast. These scale models are designed to teach Marie-Laure the shape of her neighbourhood, so she can navigate alone. Yet her family is caught between this detailed obsession with granting her independence, and an overwhelming protectiveness that leaves her seeming childlike and strangely innocent for a person caught in the middle of an occupation.

If Marie-Laure’s family attempts to shelter her in a way that is not realistic for the times she lives in, Werner gets the opposite of protection. The military school Schulpforta is a brutal indoctrination, constantly forcing the pupils to goad one another to higher achievement, for fear of being singled out as the weakest. While Werner achieves some measure of protection when he is selected to work on a special project to track the source of radio transmissions with one of the teachers, his best friend Frederick is ill-equipped to conceal his weaknesses and his sensitivity from the other boys. Werner’s conscience is a fragile and battered thing, too often given voice only by his sister, Jutta. When he cannot justify his own actions, nor can he bear to write to his sister, who goes months without word of him. (Spoilers/Trigger Warning: Jutta was a character with interesting potential, but she is neglected for most of the story, only to be brought back on stage in the final pages to be raped by Russian soldiers in a scene that felt perfunctory and unnecessary.)

As the Germans pillage Europe’s art collections, Doerr introduces a third point of view character; Sergeant Von Rumpel is sent to track down the famous Sea of Flames, a near-mythic stone that was reportedly in the collection of the Museum of Natural History. Legend has it that the gem is both blessed and cursed; the bearer of the stone cannot die, but those around him will pay the price. Contrasted with this mythic stone is the power of technology and its pivotal role in the conflict. The radio centers in the novel from the earliest pages, when Werner and Jutta repair an old shortwave, and use it to tune into French broadcasts. As the Reich asserts more and more control over its citizens, foreign frequencies are banned, and only state-sponsored German programming is permissible. Jews are not allowed to own radios at all, and the citizens of occupied France are also required to turn in their devices. Radios are pivotal both to the spread of German propaganda and the efforts of the French Resistance.

I read this book mixed media, going through part of it in audiobook form, and then finishing it in hard copy when my download expired before I got through the book. All the Light We Cannot See is long with detailed writing, and the plot, while tense at some points, moves languidly at others. The narration of the audiobook was generally good, but would have benefited from a reader who could better pronounce the many French words. Overall, I felt the book itself worked better, as the short chapters with frequent time changes were easy to lose track of when listening to the audio version.


You might also like The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein


Outrun the Moon

9780399175411_OutrunTheMoon_BOM.inddby Stacey Lee

ISBN 978-0-399-17541-1

“The closer I am to someone’s grief, the closer I feel to my own. And that is a place with no doors and no windows. No escape at all.”

Mercy Wong is the ambitious daughter of a hard-working Chinese-American launderer and a famous fortune teller, trapped in San Francisco’s Chinatown with little hope of advancement now that she has finished all the available grades at the Oriental Public School. Never one to back down easily, Mercy contrives a plan to get herself a scholarship to St. Clare’s School for Girls, one of the best private institutions in the city. But getting into the school is only half the battle, and when a historic earthquake strikes San Francisco in April 1906, all of Mercy’s plans are thrown aside, as she and her classmates struggle to survive in a city that is torn apart and burning.

In order to get into St. Clare’s, Mercy agrees to help the chocolatier Mr. du Lac get permission from the Chinese Benevolent Association for him to open a store in Chinatown. After striking this bargain, Mercy is forced to pose as a wealthy Chinese heiress, to help mute potential objections to her presence at the school. Having never been to China, Mercy must put on an act, drawing on what she can remember of her father’s stories of his childhood. Normally the novel would centre on the discovery of her deception, but lurking behind the threat of discovery is the reader’s knowledge that the great earthquake is imminent.

Outrun the Moon is full of juicy tidbits about the history of San Francisco, and Chinatown in particular. I ended up down a Google rabbit-hole only twelve pages into the book, after Stacey Lee referenced the forced inoculation of Chinatown residents following the bubonic plague outbreak that struck San Francisco in the early 1900s. Chinatown was particularly targeted, including a quarantine, and the eventual requirement that all residents of the neighbourhood be vaccinated. Many of these details are worked into the opening pages of the novel, and so it took me a while to really settle into the story, because I was constantly being caught up by the fascinating rabbit trails Lee only hints at in the text. Lee also includes quite a bit of information about Chinese rituals and superstitions, including Mercy’s aversion to the number four.

While it is primarily about Mercy’s ambitions, there is a slight romantic subplot to Outrun the Moon, as Mercy hopes to marry Tom, a doctor’s son from Chinatown. But Tom is absent for a large part of the book, pursuing his own dream of flying, rather than his father’s insistence that he follow him as a doctor. Once Mercy is at St. Clare’s, the novel focuses on the relationships she is developing with the other girls at the school, particularly Francesca, an Italian-American girl who faces her own teasing about her heritage. When Mr. du Lac proves to be a flaky business partner in their Chinatown venture, Mercy reluctantly allies with his prickly daughter Elodie in order to hold up her end of the bargain. The two girls are never precisely friends, but the evolution of their relationship over the course of the novel is a pleasure to watch. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the students must come together to try to shelter and feed everyone while the city is under martial law, awaiting relief assistance. This opens the second act, in which the girls really come into their own. Like Lee’s first novel, Under a Painted Sky, Outrun the Moon is most notable for the attention given the relationships between the diverse girls.


Cover image for Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee You might also like Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Boxers & Saints

Cover images for Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yangby Gene Luen Yang

Color by Lark Pien

ISBN 978-1-59643-359-5

ISBN 978-1-59643-689-3

“What is China but a people and their stories?”


As the youngest son, Little Bao never expected fame or glory. But when he learns how to harness ancient powers, and transforms into a mythical warrior, he rises to become a leader in the Boxer rebellion. This nationalist movement seeks to oppose foreign imperialism and the spread of Christianity within China. Little Bao believes he is fighting for his country, but so many of the people who are dying are his countrymen, both his allies within the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, and those Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity. Meanwhile, in a village not far from Little Bao’s home, Four-Girl grows up without a proper name, cursed and rejected by her grandfather for being born on a day of ill-luck. Unable to find acceptance within her family, she embraces their belief in her devilry, and gives herself over to the new foreign faith that is sweeping the land. Though she finds acceptance among the Christians, and finally receives a proper name, her lack of true faith is driven home by her visions of Joan of Arc, who sacrificed so much for her country and her religion. But do these visions mean Vibiana should become a religious martyr like Joan, or renounce her foreign faith in the name of patriotism?

Panel from p317 of Boxers

Gene Luen Yang draws on Chinese history and mythology in these two companion volumes. This intriguing time period (1894-1900) provides ample scope for the story, and it is mythology and the costuming of Chinese opera that give Yang room for artistic flair rather than pure visual realism. Lark Pien uses bright colours to bring the Chinese warriors to life, while Vibiana’s visions of Joan of Arc are defined by the use of light, and a warm, golden glow. The difficulty of communication between the two sides is driven home by a clever lettering technique on Yang’s part; dialogue that would have taken place in Chinese is conveyed in English, while Western languages are represented by an invented, Chinesesque script that is only rarely subtitled.

Panel from Saints p86

Vibiana, known to her family as Four-Girl, appears only twice, and briefly, within the pages of Boxers. In Saints, she takes center stage, showing one of the many ways in which Chinese converts might have been drawn to Christianity. Together, the two volumes tell the story of a brutal resistance that rose up in response to a brutal foreign power. Neither side comes away clean. It is the barest glimpse of the complexity and tragedy of the Boxer rebellion, and in acknowledgement of this fact, Yang provides a suggested list of Further Reading on the subject.

The decision to split Boxers & Saints into two volumes is an interesting one, because the two timelines are braided together. However, actually intermixing them would result in long asides from one story to the other, and the tones are very different. Boxers focuses on an outward battle, while most of Saints is about an inward struggle. Yet either one without the other does not give the full scope of how each side was wronged, and suffered. Though Saints is the shorter volume, and clearly better read after Boxers, they are both better read in short order so that they can complement one another.


Cover image for A Game For Swallows by Zeina Abirached You might also like A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached

Circling the Sun

Cover image for Circling the Sun by Paula McLainby Paula McLain

ISBN 978-0-8129-9932-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015.

“Everywhere I looked, complex pairings came together and slid apart again, like characters in a melodrama. Lives tumbled. They changed in an instant…that’s how quickly something could be newly begun, or finished forever. Every now and then, those things didn’t look so very different, on the surface. They both cost a great deal, too.”

Before she became the pioneering aviator holding the record for being the first woman to make the east to west solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1936, Beryl Markham (nee Clutterbuck) had already led a unique and varied life. Abandoned by her mother at the age of four, she was raised by a single father in the British colony of Kenya, where she became the first woman to hold an English horse trainer’s license. Though she enjoyed some remarkable professional success, her turbulent personal life, and the stifling social atmosphere of the colony would lead her to reinvent herself again and again in pursuit of the seemingly exclusive dreams of freedom and love. In Circling the Sun, Paula McLain—who previously fictionalized the life of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley in The Paris Wife—turns her attention to Markham, a complicated figure whose legacy remains plagued with scandal.

Markham sought independence, and focused on her career at a time when both she and the men she loved struggled to reconcile her ambition and insistence on freedom with her need for love. McLain depicts Markham’s string of marriages and entanglements that bogged down her career, including a long and complicated attachment to the famous big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who was also the long-time paramour of Baroness Blixen (better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen). McLain’s work cover’s Markham’s early life, and first two marriages, all of which is framed by her famous trans-Atlantic flight. Given the period that it covers, the book is much more about horses than planes, and more about the complicated social relationships that characterized the colony than anything else. Circling the Sun might be considered the prequel to Markham’s better-known accomplishments.

McLain’s fictional version of Markham demonstrates a deep love for Africa as a place, lavishly painting the landscape that repeatedly draws Markham back home. However, Circling the Sun has very little to say about the African people, or the problems and complications of colonialism. This is in spite of the prominence of Markham’s employer and surrogate father-figure, Baron Delamere, a significant political figure who strongly opposed the Devonshire White Paper, which declared the primacy of African interests over those of the colony’s white settlers. McLain provides a few political passages, but these are references which the fictional Markham brushes off as “some recent political nonsense.” It is difficult to say whether this reflects Markham’s own lack of interest in colonial politics, or a narrative choice on McLain’s part. Certainly it would have been more than enough for Markham to try to make her way in a man’s career, without also trying to interfere with politics. Black Africans feature very little in the story, with the exception of Markham’s childhood friend Kibii Ruta, who comes back to work for her as an adult. This intriguing relationship is portrayed as a grounding force in Markham’s life, and left me powerfully curious about Ruta.

McLain has definitely painted a sympathetic portrait of Markham, trying to inhabit her complicated times and questionable personal choices with understanding rather than judgement. In her author’s note, she quotes some effusive praise by Ernest Hemingway—no saint himself and something of misogynist—of Markham’s memoir West with the Night, but chooses to elide the fact that Hemingway goes on to call her a “high-grade bitch.” After her famous trans-Atlantic flight, Markham is perhaps best known for an affair with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, which McLain chooses to write out as entirely baseless.  It’s hard to say how much of the scandal was tittle-tattle of the sort that made the small colonial community so stifling, but Markham doesn’t need to be likeable in order to be fascinating or noteworthy. McLain’s Markham isn’t uncomplicated, but she isn’t fully rounded, either. However, McLain has certainly succeeded in sparking empathy and curiosity, and perhaps that is enough for a fictional biography.


Cover image for The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert You might also like The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Songs of Willow Frost

 Cover image for Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Fordby Jamie Ford

ISBN 978-0-345-52203-0

“You can’t expect children to sew their own gaping wounds without leaving a terrible scar.”

Five years ago, at the beginning of the Great Depression, twelve-year-old William Eng found his mother bleeding out in the bathtub of their apartment in the Bush Hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown. Since then, he has lived at Sacred Heart Orphanage under the watchful eye of Sister Briganti. Sometimes children are retrieved by their parents or adopted, but Chinese William, and his friends, Native American Sunny and blind Charlotte, have little hope of finding a new home. On a joint birthday outing for all the boys at the orphanage, William spots an Asian actress on screen who is a dead ringer for his mother, Liu Song. When he discovers that the actress, Willow Frost, will be coming through Seattle on tour, he sets out to meet her, determined to get the answers the nuns have so long denied him. Running away with Charlotte in tow, William learns the tragic and complicated story of how he came to live at Sacred Heart. The history he uncovers lays bare the plight of Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants in Depression-era Seattle.

Social injustice and oppression are rife in this story that begins in Seattle at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and continues through the Great Depression. Even before the Depression, it was difficult for women to obtain legitimate employment, and the pay from the jobs that were available was meager. Non-white theatre-goers had to sit in a separate section, and coloured performers were relegated to the servants’ dining room of the venues that warmly receive their white counterparts. An American-born Chinese woman could not marry a white American, but risked losing her citizenship if she wed a man born in China. Poor women and members of minorities were subjected to involuntary sterilization at the hands of the state under the cover of medical aid. The list of atrocities is long, and historical remove turns the perpetrators of these injustices into flat, villainous caricatures.

With so many misfortunes in a single book, it is no surprise that most of the characters have more than one tragedy in their backstory. A tragic past is not the same thing as character development, but unfortunately Jamie Ford often treats it as such. While this certainly conveys the bleakness of the Depression, people who are little more than catalogues of tragedies make for unrealistic characters. William’s friend, and fellow runaway, Charlotte, is dealt with particularly unjustly. One of William’s few friends at Sacred Heart, she is the stereotype of a blind character, with acute hearing, and the ability to tell who has approached her without seeing them. Ford disposes of her quite callously when she is no longer useful to the story.

The main strengths of Songs of Willow Frost are historical colour and local interest strongly supported by Ford’s research (see the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements, particularly if you are local to Puget Sound and want to visit some of the museums and libraries that supported this project). William affects his escape from Sacred Heart in the back of the King County Library bookmobile, and the story stops at many recognizable Seattle landmarks, including Smith Tower’s Chinese Room. Ford neatly slips the developments in the film and music industries of the period, and other technological advances into the fabric of the story. Only occasionally does he get a little carried away, letting history overwhelm the narrative. Unfortunately, these real elements are frequently more interesting that the fiction that surrounds them.

The Scent of Death

Cover image for The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylorby Andrew Taylor

ISBN 978-0-007213511

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“The point is, sir, however loyal an American may be, he is not a Englishman any more. He is become quite a different animal.”

Mr. Edward Savill of the British government’s American Department arrives in New York in the summer of 1778, in the midst of the American Revolution. New York is held by the British, and Mr. Savill is charged with documenting the claims of Loyalists who have been turned out of their homes by American rebels. Manhattan is under military rule, and overflowing with refugees from the war, obliging Mr. Savill to billet with the Wintour family, including Judge Wintour, his wife, and their daughter-in-law, Mrs. Arabella. Immediately upon his arrival, Mr. Savill is drawn into the investigation of the murder of Mr. Roger Pickett, an American of questionable loyalties whose body is found in the slums of Canvas Town. What at first seems a simple case of robbery comes back to haunt Mr. Savill’s tenure in New York when Mr. Pickett’s influential brother-in-law demands that the investigation be reopened.

Veteran mystery writer Andrew Taylor first published The Scent of Death in Britain in 2013. The historical thriller earned Taylor his third Crime Writer’s Association Ellis Peters Historical Award, and is now being published in the United States by Harper Collins. Taylor has a beautiful command of the language and culture of the period, and a rich knowledge of history that brings Revolutionary-era New York to life in vivid detail, although his British perspective will undoubtedly feel alien to many American readers, who will be seeing the War of Independence from the other side.

If you don’t enjoy gathering up clues or basking in period detail, the first two hundred pages of The Scent of Death are rather tedious. Taylor abides by the rules of fair play, so those who like puzzling out whodunit before the protagonist will find plenty to keep them thinking and theorizing. However it takes a great deal of patience to get through the opening acts, in part because Mr. Savill is not a particularly good or eager detective. He is reluctant to get involved in affairs beyond the scope of his post, and concerned by Mr. Pickett’s connection, however slight, to the Wintour family, whose members he has become attached to during his stay. If you are good at solving murder mysteries, you may be impatient for Mr. Savill to catch up to you.

In addition to a slow start, The Scent of Death is hard going at first due to Taylor’s stereotypical characterizations. His Englishmen come across as stuffy, pretentious, insufferable bores, and his Americans seem to be uncultured, racist boors. On meeting Mrs. Arabella Wintour, a noted American beauty, Mr, Savill has the ungenerous thought that the Americans “perhaps judged a lady’s personal attractions by lower standards than we did.” These kinds of priggish judgements make Mr. Savill unpleasant company. What is interesting about this characterization is the way Taylor is able to use it to illicit the sympathies of the modern reader; we are brought to like Mr. Savill in spite of his priggishness because he treats the black characters and slaves much better than his American counterparts. His sympathy for the runaway slave Virgil isn’t much, and it doesn’t save the slave from hanging, but it is difficult not to like Mr. Savill when he prevents a man from selling his wife’s maid to pay a gambling debt. He may be a reluctant hero, but he eventually finds his feet. Similarly, despite their racism, we are drawn to the American characters precisely because they are so much more friendly and accessible than the English ones. Ultimately, Taylor seems to be playing with the stereotypes rather than leaning on them, and using the contradictions to confound our ability to judge characters and assess their guilt.

The plot arc of The Scent of Death deals in extremes, starting with a ponderous introduction, and coming to a frenetic and luridly sensational ending in the last seventy pages. The satisfaction of piecing together the many clues is somewhat diminished by the melodramatic final reveal, which has none of the delicate balance Taylor pulls off in playing the British and American interests against one another. The Scarface plot comes neatly together, but Taylor’s need to add one final twist puts the ending a little over the top. The Scent of Death has Taylor’s strong command of the language and vivid historical setting to recommend it, but the slow pacing and unsatisfactory conclusion weigh heavily against those considerations.

An Italian Wife

Cover image for An Italian Wife by Ann Hoodby Ann Hood

ISBN 978-0-393-24166-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“In America, anything was possible. This was what Josephine’s husband told her before he left their village to catch the ship in Naples. She didn’t know him, this husband of hers. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents long ago, before Josephine had breasts, or menstruated for the first time.”

In turn-of-the-century Italy, fourteen-year-old Josephine is married to Vincenzo Rimaldi, an older man chosen for her by her parents. Shortly after the wedding, Vincenzo departs for America alone, and nine years later, he finally sends for his wife to join him in Rhode Island. Thus begins an Italian-American family saga that spans a century, and four generations of the Rimaldi clan. Josephine gives birth to seven children, including a final child that is secretly given up for adoption. Josephine’s daughters grow up, marry, and have daughters of their own, never suspecting their mother’s secret loss, as each in turn suffers her own disappointments with life and love.

A strong sexual current runs through the series of interconnected short stories that make up this novel, as the Rimaldi women stagger under the overwhelming burden of Catholic guilt. First Josephine, who has child after child by a husband with whom she knows neither love, nor pleasure, has a short-lived affair in “The Summer of Ice.” In “War Stories,” her daughter, Elisabetta, sets out to seduce the parish priest, even as her younger sister Chiara decides to become a nun. In “Husbands,” Josephine’s granddaughter, Francie, a war widow, has a series of affairs with her neighbours’ spouses. Struggling with the traditional values that tell them their sexual desires are not only wrong, but sinful, and unimportant compared to the demands of family life, the Rimaldi women frequently find that happiness is elusive. Ann Hood focuses on the women of the family, but also pauses to explore Carmine, Josephine’s son, and a World War I veteran, and Davy, Josephine’s great-grandson, who values his Italian heritage even as his mother seeks to Americanize her family. Of Italian-American descent herself, Hood draws on her own family’s history of arriving in Rhode Island and building a new life, each generation becoming more at home in America, but still carrying the weight of tradition.

Speaking at ALA Annual 2014 in Las Vegas, Hood revealed that she wrote this novel in bits in pieces over the years, fitting the stories in between her other projects, and only later realizing she had a novel on her hands. The patchwork shows in the sporadic nature of the vignettes, and the need to frequently refer to the Rimaldi family tree at the front of the book. Josephine’s search for her lost daughter, and the daughter’s quest for the mother who gave her up loosely book-end the novel, but in between we travel far and wide from this organizing conceit.


Cover image for The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody EpsteinYou might also like The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

The Miniaturist

Cover image for The Miniaturist by Jessie Burtonby Jessie Burton

ISBN 978-0-06-235443-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“Adrift, she feels shipwrecked between the idea of her marriage and its actual state, and the cabinet, beautiful and useless, is a horrible reminder of it all.”

Eighteen-year-old Petronella Oortman has recently been married to Johannes Brandt, a Dutch East India Company merchant twice her age. When she arrives in Amsterdam in the winter of 1686, she finds that she has joined a most unusual household, managed by Brandt’s spinster sister, Marin, and attended by an adopted orphan maid, and a freed African slave. As a wedding gift from her new husband, Nella receives an ornately carved cabinet house, a miniature model of her new home. With her husband often traveling for his work, Nella is left alone in this unusual household, and to pass the time she commissions a miniaturist to make some pieces for her cabinet house. But the artist far exceeds her requests, sending pieces that eerily echo the goings on in the Brandt household, and predicting troubling turns of events that threaten to expose the Brandts’ secrets to the prying eyes of Amsterdam society.

What comes across most vividly in The Miniaturist is the setting in seventeenth century Amsterdam, from the house on the Herengracht, to the Bourse, to the docks and warehouses of the Dutch East India Company. Debut novelist Jessie Burton captures both the atmosphere of the city, and the repressive air of the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, Burton visited the city in 2009 and the miniature house is a real artefact that can be found in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, while the protagonist’s name is borrowed from that house’s original owner. Burton’s prose is evocative, if occasionally overwrought, as when Nella is “weakened by the magnificence of Marin’s fury.” Despite the occasional overdone passage, the style is generally strong, although the choice of third person present tense narration was sometimes distracting.

While the historical detail of the setting was meticulous, Burton did not apply the same philosophy to her characters. Marin and Nella are posed as feminists in a manner that strengthens their characters, but weakens the historical veracity of The Miniaturist. The protagonist and her friends all had very modern attitudes towards a variety of issues that would not have been generally accepted in seventeenth century Amsterdam. One such discrepancy might pass under the radar, but three is asking the reader to suspend their knowledge of history a bit too much. As these events come to the fore, the mystery of the miniaturist falls into the background, never to be picked back up. The pace of the plot increases, but the thread of the story is lost.


More historical fiction with an element of fantasy:

Cover image for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene WeckerThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Cover Image for The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern