Written by Ella Walker


Shelf Life

A good book is like a good friend, says Ella Walker, you can’t let any old one into your life. This week she assesses The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Is it worthy of a permanent place on her shelf?


In many cases, books are far better than humans. Fact.

Often more reliable, insightful and exciting than real people, a relationship with a book can far outlast actual friendships. You know I’m right. I’d take Harry Potter, The BFG and Aslan the lion over almost everyone who wrote “forever friends! xxx” on my primary school leaver’s T-shirt. And there’s absolutely no problem with that.

But, just as you get better at picking long-lasting friends (and more efficient at culling on Facebook), when your bookcase is getting unmanageably jumbled, you’ve got to have a vetting process.

Was it love at first sight?

The reviews were intimidatingly good for Jessie Burton’s debut novel. Sold in 30 countries from the outset, it kept catching my eye: that jewel blue cover, those tempting ‘buy one get one half price’ stickers, the fact it wouldn’t budge from the bestseller chart. I was reluctant to play nice at first – when even Tesco is shoving it in your face, you just don’t want to succumb to the hype – but it gradually wore me down.

How long did it take you to feel truly comfortable around each other?

Pretty instantaneously. It’s hard not to fuse yourself to heroine Nella who’s been married off to a successful, if absent, merchant in 17th century Amsterdam. Her head is stuffed with thoughts of love and babies and running her own house, but when she arrives in the city the damp is almost as claustrophobic and forbidding as the secretive family she has unwittingly joined.

Crushed by her brusque sister-in-law Marin and pitied by her maid Cornelia, she is utterly ignored by her husband until he gives her a doll’s house; a haunting replica of her new home. That’s when things begin to get decidedly unnerving, and the edges of Nella’s new life start fraying.

Did it make you laugh out loud?

This book explores how marriage traps and warps who you are; the penalty faced by gay men in Holland (death by drowning, nice), and how survival often makes it necessary for you to utterly conceal your true nature. Frankly, it ain’t much of a laugh.

miniaturistCould you take it on holiday with you without getting severely hacked off after three days?

Did you read my last answer? It’s no fluffy page turner that you can chuck in the sand while you’re slapping on the sun lotion. It’s more the kind of book you hide behind while trying to look interesting and aloof on a trans-Siberian railway adventure, or while drinking in dark, salubrious café corners in, um, Amsterdam?

How would you describe it behind its back?

Luminous, murky and addictive. It may lack a certain amount of depth, and the odd snippet does flirt dangerously with the realm of ‘totally unbelievable’ (a gentlewoman wouldn’t get away with shouting in the street without drawing more than a few stares), but it makes up for it with atmosphere.

How would it describe your commitment levels – did you put the effort in?

I just booked flights to Amsterdam. I think that shows commitment.

You’ve had a nightmare time. Would it provide the understanding to get you through / soak up your tears?

I read this to obliterate all thoughts of a week dominated by the death of a family member and a trip to the doctors because my sodding post-appendicitis stitches decided to screw me over. It provided perspective (to be fair I’d rather take antibiotics than get married off for money), escapism and a plot tangled enough to burrow into for several, stress free hours. In short, it was a book shaped rock.

Would you let it meet your other friends?

Certainly, whether they want to meet it or not. Turns out the hype is much deserved.

If you suddenly stumbled across it after several years of lost contact, do you reckon you would:
a) think of it fondly but accept you’d both moved on (keep but don’t read)
b) pick up exactly where you left off (reread every few years)
c) ditch it, obviously you were never really friends

A hopeful b, however, I don’t believe that fresh layers of magic will seep out on each new reading. It’s more a book to hole up with on a foggy day, preferably with a mug of something hot. Also, a fur cape: it’s decadent like that.

Fill the gaps in your Shelf Life with more books here.


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Written by Ella Walker

Ella Walker is an entertainment writer and book blogger living in Cambridge. She likes swimming in the sea and eating biscuits. Preferably at the same time.