Sometime last year, I can’t remember when, posters appeared all over the London Underground advertising this debut novel by Jessie Burton. The combination of the intriguing title and the eye-catching artwork created a mental image in my head that was highly appealing. So if the person who was responsible for the marketing of the book is reading this, well done. I only bought it, though, when I found myself in the very pokey bookshop of Primrose Hill. By this time, the book had started to win some praise and an award or two.
Set in the Netherlands in the late 17th century, the book gets off to a slightly unexpected start. Our main protagonist is Nella, an 18 year old woman who has recently married a trader roughly twice her age. Yet she seems not to really know him at all. She arrives at his house, greeted by his cold and unfriendly sister, Marin, and the servants of the household, Cornelia and Otto. It is a little while before we meet her husband, Johannes, but he remains a constant, yet distant figure throughout the book’s opening.
He attempts to make up for his relative absence by buying Nella a large kind of dollhouse. It is this that provides the impetus for the title of the novel, though it is curiously incidental to the overall plot. It’s something of a McGuffin, where the story would be little impacted if it were omitted. Because of this failure to meet expectations, I couldn’t like the book as much as I had hoped. Yet if one puts aside the missed expectations, then we do get the work of a very good storyteller setting out on the published stage of her writing career.
The real heart of the book consists of the interactions between the main characters, who are all well fleshed out and given their distinctive voices. Often written in dialogue, we see how Nella relates to Johannes, then how she relates to Marin, then how Marin relates to Cornelia, how Cornelia relates to Otto and so on. Through this method of storytelling, we build up the characterisation, while there are events which punctuate these and make for a very well paced novel.
I would warn potential readers that if it had the same kind of certification as a film, it would probably be a 15. There is some rather brutish homophobia as well as one or two gory scenes that are described in lurid detail.
It has also been noted that the book has divided opinion somewhat. I can see why some people may have been disappointed. I think it’s possibly because it’s not in the genre of fiction that people expect. Some have described it as an historical novel. While it’s certainly set in the past, the tone feels distinctly modern. Rather, this is a sensation novel, in the style of the late Victorian period. The closest in terms of the plot structure that I’ve reviewed on this blog before is Thomas Hardy’s Desperate Remedies.
So would I recommend it? Yes, it is a good book. Is it deserving of the all the awards and high praise that is garnered? I’m not convinced. If in doubt, though, do read it. There are plenty more ordinary books out there that aren’t half as interesting.