Herman Koch takes you to the dark side of Amsterdam –
A summer’s evening in Amsterdam. Two couples meet at a restaurant. They talk about what couples do, but beside the seemingly normal and rather cosy chit chat there is utter anguish at despair at what their teenage sons have done.
Their children, their flesh and bloodhave committed a horrifying act. To make matters worse, they have been caught on camera, grainy CCTV images – despite a police manhunt, the boys remain unidentified – by everyone except their parents.
Asthe parents tuck into their starters, they have to decide what to do. Who really is to blame?
Apart from the setting in a unknown restaurant in Amsterdam, the sense of place is rather that of Dutch society and the role of parents and the portrayal of family life. You won’t like the people in the novel and in fact as I did, you will probably utterly despise them –Paul in particular who as the main narrator has a lot to say for himself about politicians, the state of the world etc etc but whether you can or should believe him is another matter entirely.
The structure of the novel – the serving of each course and the tasting of the various flavours suited this plot perfectly – the pretentiousness of the restaurantstaff and the snobbery apparent is pitch perfect
The characters may be hateful yet a good story doesn’t necessarily have to have likable ones to be interesting – and these certainly are multilayered and very complex characters. Paul Lohman is also very dark and as for his brother Serge? Brrrr
Dark secrets inbourgeois families are definitely on the menu -and that’s just for starters – for the main course there is thepreoccupation with appearances,and for desert – hiding the skeletons hidden in the closet.
This is one of those books that I’m unsure of the ending and think that this was meant to be the case. Interpretation is a good thing when reading a book and when sat in one location, in the midst of a snobby restaurant and waiting for each dish to be served up, the service, the atmosphere and the comments around the table were fascinating. Weird but fascinating.
The booktrailer is meeting with the author of The Miniaturist today – Jessie Burton no less. To say that I’m excited is an understatement particularly since the invitation came in a rather unusual way…
I was sitting, reading, in Booktrail towers when I hear a thud on the carpet just inside the door. Not this is not so unusual since the postman has been known to post bookmail through. But when I went to see what book present I had received, I notice that it is lighter than most and is wrapped in smooth brown paper. Puzzled I look closer and see that there is a brown piece of string tied around it AND A PICTURE OF THE SUN ON IT. I gasp and out of shock almost drop the parcel in both excitement and as if it has suddenly grown very hot.
There is a sentence written around the sun in black letters – EVERY AUTHOR NEEDS TEA AND CAKE. I smile then for I know now what I will find in the parcel. It is still with trembling fingers how ever that I manage to untie the parcel full of expectation. And from the tissue paper inside, I take out several objects – a miniature Jessie Burton, a miniature booktrailer, some miniature cakes and two miniature cups of tea. There is another treasure in the parcel, tucked in a separate piece of paper and wrapped in a bubble wrap of sorts. This must be something more delicate than most I tell myself.
And it is, for when I open it, it is the smallest, most perfect vase of yellow tulips that I ever did see. On the back of the vase are the numbers 25.6.14 at 4pm. And then I know what I must do and for what I must prepare. These objects will be the architect of our very good fortune….
So , I set about recreating the scene that the author for the Miniaturist has set for me – I hope I have served her well….
So, you can imagine my excitement and nervousness when she arrives! I know I have written quite a few booktrail posts on this book but it has inspired me and captured my imagination in such a way that I could not resist to write about it and spread the word. And now The Miniaturist is here herself. Aaaaah.
Hi Jessie, do come in..the scene is all set out as you wish…
She smiles and after taking off her coat, sits down and says how lovely it all looks and that I have recreated the scene well. I have the eye of a Miniaturist she says. I blush and remember my days spent making miniature monks out of plasticine (I have no idea why I used to do this when I was young, they were just easy to make and I had a lot of brown clay hehe) but I won’t tell her that, it would kill the mood.
Hi Jessie, pick a cake , pink or purple…she takes the pink one and I start with the chat….
This must be one of the most magical blurbs on a book that I have ever read. What was it about that dollhouse in the Rijksmuseum that inspired you so much? and about the art of the Miniaturist?
It inspired me for several reasons. Firstly, it’s a very beautiful decorative object, that has to be seen to be believed. Secondly, the fact it was an exact replica of a real house filled with pieces from around the world, was so fascinating. To me it was a reflection of the society its owner lived in, and posed interesting questions about her motive behind commissioning it in the first place. The miniatures inside it are works of art!
Miniaturists were real artists. Which object in your house or life would you like a miniature of to treasure?
Good question! Mmm. I’d like a miniature of my cat because then at least I’d be able to control her and know where she actually is half the time…
What kind of research did you do in Amsterdam? What are your connections to the city?
I had no connections before I went on holiday there in 2009. I read social history and recipe books. I studied maps and paintings, and I traced the physical city with my footsteps to get a sense of it. (I love that last bit – she is a real life miniaturist booktrailer!!!)
Petronella Oortman is a real person so what were you careful to include in her story and what message did you want her to tell?
To be honest, I have altered the real Petronella’s autobiography. I have made her much younger than her husband for reasons of plot. I have also put her and her husband in a more expensive house, also for novelistic needs! I wanted Nella, as I think of her, to be the eyes and ears of the story. She comes to the city as an innocent, but full of spark and spirit that leads her on. She thinks she knows what is what. She doesn’t. That’s helpful as the writer, because you can insert ambiguity. She has to learn a lot of lessons about love and friendship, about betrayal and compromise.
Marin is another fascinating character. Was she based on anyone that you researched?
Not at all. She is a figment of my imagination. I did see one quite severe painting of a woman that reminded me of her, but actually Marin is softer in my mind than Nella takes her for.
The Golden Age in Amsterdam is a fascinating period of history. What interesting fact did you learn that you may not have included into the book?
Mmm. I think I crammed all the interesting things in that I could! I’m sure I must have jotted a few strange facts down that slipped through the net.
Hopefully people will find them for themselves.
I read that an actual version of the house and figures was made before being photographed for the cover? Have you been allowed to keep it?
This is true! A real Miniaturist made the front cover, which is quite extraordinary. I hope I get to keep it but that would be a long way off. We want as many people as possible to see it first.
I believe your next book is set in Spain this time. Can you tell us anything about it?
Well, it’s still in the impressionistic phase. Spain in 1937, London in 1967. A disgraced painter, a rebellious girl, one act of betrayal echoing on through time. Two women and a young man trying to find a foothold in a turbulent life.
Ooh perfect for another booktrail!
Thank you so much for stopping by today Jessie. What’s that you say? A gift? For me? I open the parcel she hands me slightly nervous that it will be another set of miniatures and wondering what challenge Jessie has set me this time…. but well it was a challenge but a different kind than what I had expected….
Reader, I have to wear these out, in public. So when you see me, I will be the wobbly one that cannot walk upright. I’m off to practice now…Here Jessie you take these cup cakes back with you. (I got two extra hehe) Here take them quick, I might drop the, not too steady on my feet.
And with that The Miniaturist lady gives me a hug ( or at least tries but I am suddenly seven foot tall in these things) and she is off
Following on from yesterday’s post, we’re back in Amsterdam with Jessie Burton – and are on our way along the canals past the houses spotted in the Miniaturist novel to enter once again into Nella’s new home and into her life..
Today we venture further in to the world of The Miniaturist ……..Nella’s husband has just given her a wedding gift that will change her life….
When her husband first gives her a cabinet house, which is an exact replica of their own house, miniaturized and unfurnished, she is at first offended having been given a toy although she is no child. Then she is told to furnish it which she takes as yet another order and of having to obey and do what is expected of her.
However her attempt to fill the house leads her to contacting a Miniaturist who she instructs to make items to furnish the house. The first order is completed but then mysterious parcels start to appear including startling models of its occupants – items which don’t appear to stay the same, changing their appearance as events in Nella’s cloistered existence start to open up..
The Mysterious Miniaturist
This miniaturist seems to be someone with intimate knowledge of Nella’s life and this someone is not only watching her but appears to be able to predict what will happen next.
Who is the Miniaturist?
What does she know?
What is she trying to tell Nella?
Just what kind of secrets are bound up in these parcels?
The Kalverstraat – where the sign of the sun is – where Nella goes to employ the services of the Miniaturist . On one of the parcels she receives has something written on it around a picture of the sun –
EVERY WOMAN IS THE ARCHITECT OF HER OWN FORTUNE
At a time where Nella herself concludes that women don’t build anything let alone their own fortunes, this is a hint of things to come…..
Amsterdam at the time of the Golden Age was a frenzied hub of trade and activity in sugar loaves and other commodities. The book comes alive even here with the sights, sounds and smells of the canals and their significance coming alive right off the page –
Nella turns to the canals as bargemen’s laughter rises up the opposite brickwork. A puny lad has skittled into a woman and her basket of fish, and a half-dead herring slithers down the wide front of the seller’s skirt.
The sugar trade
There is a lot of historical fact in this novel – the research is impeccable – although it always adds to the story and never detracts from the action or characters. It is a fine way to learn about the Golden Age…
Sugar loaves figure significantly in the story. Sugar at the time was routinely formed into solid cone shapes for shipping. Sugar Loaf mountain in Brazil, named for its shape like a sugar loaf suddenly seems a lot more obvious now.
If you want to not only travel but be transported to the Dutch Golden Age…
If you are intrigued by magic…
If you love a good mystery with as many unexpected twists not unlike the streets around the canals…
If you want to open a door only to find another one…and this one has a mystery behind it…
Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed
Come by tomorrow when we have a cuppa and a cake with none other than Jessie Burton herself! I will be cleaning the Delft pottery today in preparation. I’ve borrowed a parakeet from the local petshop, have some pufferts in the oven too… we’re all set.
Amsterdam, in 1686, during the period known as the Golden age. A time where the city prospered and was incredibly wealthy because of its trading capabilities, yet was significantly poorer in terms of gender equality and women’s rights.
The story in a nutshell
In 1686, 18 year old Petronella Oortman comes to live in Amsterdam with her new husband, Johannes Brandt. However theirs was an arranged marriage in order to salvage the finances of the Oortman family. Nella is understandably afraid – she has barely met Johannes and knows little about his life and family.
She arrives at the door – a stranger in a new world, a man’s world, alone and uncertain of what lies ahead…
On the step of her new husband’s house, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker embarrassed by the thud.
Her new home is cold and unwelcoming and her husband is not even there at first since he travels a lot for his work. As she tries to settle in and take in her surroundings, Johannes returns and gives his bride, a wedding gift of a cabinet, a kind of doll house that closely mirrors the Brandt home. Nella engages the services of a miniaturist, to make furniture and fittings. What she receives is far more than she expected, as the pieces reflect a bit too closely persons and events in the family’s life, some frighteningly so.
The novel opens in the Old Church – a mysterious woman is secretly observing a funeral -who is she and who is the funeral for? Two of the many mysteries which entice you to read further…
The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot and the church’s east corner is crowded.
As we are left wondering who these people are and why they are here, we are taken over to the Herengracht canal where a certain young girl is making her way to her new home, having only met her husband at her wedding, months earlier….
Nella’s new home –
This part of the Herengracht is known as the Golden Bend, but today the wide stretch is brown and workaday. Looming above the sludge-coloured canal, the houses are a phenomenon. Admiring their own symmetry on the water, they are stately an beautiful, jewels set within the city’s pride. Above their rooftops, Nature is doing her best to keep up, and clouds in colours of saffron and apricot echo the glorious republic.
Nella walks into the house, nervous and alone. Her one true friend is her parakeet Peebo –
Peebo her parakeet, thrills the tips of his feathers against the cage bars, his faint cheep falling short onto the marble. Even the now-quiet canal behind them seems to hold its breath.
Nella is a fascinating character – a woman who struggles to adapt to the social mores and expectations as the lady of the house. Her new husband Johannes twenty years older, while seemingly very kind, is emotionally and physically distant. She is thrown together with her husband’s cold sister Marin, Johanne’s help Otto and her maid Cornelia. Otto is the first black man she has ever seen and she sees the ugliness of the city raise its head by how he is generally treated.
Nella feels as trapped as Peebo is in a cage of her own – a gilded cage at that since she is given wealth and a new status in society but one very much controlled by her role in life and the men around her. Women of the time had little, if any, independence and were dictated to by men leaving them with no power of their own.
Marriage, paradoxically, was seen by some as the only way for women to secure any influence over their own lives. But this marriage is to give Nella more challenges that it gives her influence.
For Nella receives a gift and meets a miniaturist who can seemingly predict (or is it influence?) her life and that of those around her.
Join us tomorrow as Nella enters the world of the Miniaturist….
Following on from yesterday’s excited post about the upcoming novel The Miniaturist, we wanted to share something else with you about this amazing book. The cover itself.. perhaps one of the most amazing, detailed and imaginative we have ever seen here at The Booktrail…..
The house on the cover was built from scratch by the most remarkable artist! It’s the kind of cover where, just as like when looking at a real dollhouse, you have to look and look as you can’t take your eyes off it. Every time you look you see something else – just as every time you read the book, you discover something else. magical on every layer……
The detail of the cover show the detail that was exhibited in the real dollhouse in the Rijksmuseum – the very same houses that wealthy women of the Golden Age would furnish as a sign of their status in society. Rather how we buy cars and houses today – you see some things just don’t change.
The amazing designer Katie Tooke – just look at what she’s achieved! – designed the cover for the novel
The setting is captured so perfectly in the artwork –
The large grand houses of the time
The paintings on the wall
The ornate moldings of the decoration
The dress of the day
Both the novel and the cover are incredibly evocative and we could see the fire on the cover as we did in the novel, its orange glow on the checkered tiles.We see Marin and Johannes upstairs with Rezeki the dog. Nella stands downstairs alone having just moved to Amsterdam and entered this house to be with her new husband who she has only met at their wedding.
Standing alone with her parakeet Peebo, she is poised for adventure….
Forget World Cup excitement, for anyone in the bookworld right now, the anticipation for something quite different is reaching fever pitch.
If you have never been to Amsterdam, if you know nothing of the city’s wealthy area known as the Golden Bend and the Herengracht canal, then you will soon be transported there….
And even if you know Amsterdam well, you will not have experienced 17th century Amsterdam at the time of the Golden Age and the birth of the Dutch East India Company, the bustling canals, the trade in sugar and other commodities and the secret goings on behind a door in Kalverstraat –
The Kalverstraat is a long busy street away from the canal, where many sellers ply their trade. They no longer sell calves and cows there but the manure from horses lends it a meaty, pungent atmosphere amidst the print and dye shops, the haberdashers and apothecaries.
But Nella has already spotted the sign of the sun. A small stone sun has been engraved in a plaque and embedded into the brickwork. Painted freshly gold it is a heavenly body come to earth, bright stone rays shooting out around its glowing orb. It’s too high up the wall and Nella wishes she could touch it.
Beneath the sun, a motto has been engraved: Everything Man sees He Takes for a Toy.
For this place on the Kalverstraat is the home of the Miniaturist…..
The Miniaturist is the most exciting premise we at the book trail have come across in fiction for a long time. It focuses on an object of beauty, a miniature dolls house that is currently on display in the Rijksmuseum. It was the miniature home of the ‘real’ Petronella Oortman twice-widowed who lived with her silk merchant husband Johannes on the Warmoestraat and not the Heren canal as in the book. However where fact meets fiction is the desire to build and own a doll house that became known as a wonder of the world….
Such houses were coveted by wealthy families during the Golden Age since they symbolised wealth and status. But the house in the Miniaturist is one gifted to a young fictionalised Nella who, in 1686, arrives in Amsterdam from the country to marry a wealthy merchant. He then gifts her a miniature version of their home which she then sets about furnishing it with exclusive and beautifully crafted items she receives from a Miniaturist.
On the parcel are written the words –
Every woman is the architect of her own fortune
Nella is puzzled not only at this but at what is inside. She soon realises that she has received a lot more than she bargained for. The Miniaturist has sent additional items, items not requested or discussed…
And they appear to be mirroring the life of their real life counterparts in the most unexpected of ways….
This is where the magic happens
This is where the future of its inhabitants will be played out in miniature form.
The Dutch have a tongue in cheek saying about their celebrities – they are “wereldberoemd in Nederland” – meaning that they are “world-known in the Netherlands”, recognising the fact that they are a small nation and that some of its achievements may not be recognised abroad.
What about Dutch writers and books set in the Netherlands? You may have read one or two – the diary of Anne Frank springs to mind – but hadn’t yet realised the amount of fiction and non- fiction actually out there which takes you to the heart of its history and culture..
Take a tour of Amsterdam via books as your guide -all mentioned in the city pick guides – some translated from the Dutch and others written by English language authors –
Tragic history –
Another one of note that deserves a mention here is the Tracy Chevalier title ‘The Girl with The Pearl Earring’ – learn more about life for a woman in 17th century holland and life as a maid living with her master when she becomes embroiled in the life of a famous painter – Johannes Vermeer
Old Amsterdam, Amsterdam during the Golden age, Amsterdam during WW2 – it’s all here and for a city we at the Booktrail have lived in and been to many times, there was such a lot that we discovered. Makes us want to go back. The book is divided this way and illuminates the the city highlights and people of Amsterdam, the city history and traditions, all sprinkled with quotations about Amsterdam today.
You think you know how Amsterdam feel? what its people are like? What literature it has produced? What literature it has inspired?
Think again for this is a city that hide its secrets well and only the most determined can find the gems hidden amidst its winding canals and back streets. Even in its most beautiful parks and tulip fields, there is always something to discover. Probably as Amsterdam is a city we think we know so well – is a city that judging by literature set there and inspired by it, we actually know very little.
Read more books to discover its secrets..?……ooh go on then!