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8 August 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 10:29am

Reviews round-up | 5 August

The critics' verdicts on Jessie Burton, Nick Davies and Haruki Murakami.

By New Statesman

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, is set in 17th-century Amsterdam. The novel follows 18-year-old Nella Oortman, and her arranged marriage to a wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt. Feeling stifled by her new surroundings, Nella embarks on “a small act of rebellion”; secretly commissioning tiny items for a miniature cabinet house, designed to provoke Johannes’ sister Marin. Yet as the novel unfolds, Nella is met with a series of puzzles. It soon becomes apparent that the miniaturist’s cryptic models are a lot more complex than they first might appear.

Writing for the Telegraph, Holly Kyte applauds Burton’s “confidence” in her creation of a “bold plot” with a “compelling premise”. Special attention is given to the unique backdrop of Calvinist Amsterdam, and the “fascinating contradictions” that it provides. Kyte is also impressed by Burton’s detailed writing, noting that “every sentence is a gorgeous, finely tuned thing,” while “domestic snapshots come straight from Vermeeror Dutch still lifes”. Concerns are raised over the authenticity of the novel however; Kyte suggests that there is “too much 21st-century liberalism for our 17th-century characters to realistically bear”.

Rachel Hore’s review for the Independent shares similar criticism, noting that “the nature of [Nella’s] tolerance and understanding would have made her highly unusual for her time”. This isn’t without benefits though; Hore praises the “edge and accessibility” of the novel, describing Nella as a “heroine to suit a modern relationship”. Special attention is reserved for Burton’s writing, and her ability to make “figures from old Dutch masters come to life” in this “lushly written debut”.

 Rachel Cooke of the Guardian writes a similarly mixed review, applauding the novel’s “ingenuity” and “lovely passages”. Yet Cooke also questions Burton’s characters “bracing modernity” and “radically sympathetic attitude to human sexuality”, suggesting that the lead character is more “akin to a 21st-century teenager than a 17th-century one”. Although complimenting the “ensuing revelations”, which “come thick and fast”, Cooke seems largely unimpressed by this “curious” novel, commenting that its “temperature rests stubbornly at lukewarm”.

Hack attack: how the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch by Nick Davies

Hack Attack is a gripping account of how a driven journalist brought to light the moral monstrosities committed by Rupert Murdoch and his corrupt tabloid empire. Written by well-respected investigative journalist Nick Davies, this account of how he worked tirelessly and often alone to right the nefarious wrongs being committed by the unscrupulous tabloid general and his devious henchmen has drawn widespread admiration. Davies’ was crucial to bringing the case to light and his proactive approach to the phone hacking scandel ensured those who had done wrong would not get away with it.

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In his review of the book for the Telegraph, Peter Oborne sings the praises of Davies in his approach to unearthing what was really going on in Murdoch’s monopoly. He voices his opinion that Davies is Britain’s “greatest investigative journalist” who is driven by a “deep seated urge” to ensure power is not abused by those in possession of it. Oborne seems to admire Davies’ tenacity, He talks of how the journalist often felt “isolated and in despair”, yet how he refused to “let the matter rest” in order to ensure those who committed such unprincipled acts were held to account. Oborne’s perspective is summarised by his describing of the book as being “as exciting as a thriller, but far more important”.

Will Gore, writing for the Independent, clearly respects Davies’ dogged nature in uncovering the truth about the phone hacking, writing how Davies was “as ideologically driven as those he despises”. He also describes Davies’ pragmatic approach in how he created “power networks” made up of “friendly cops, sympathetic politicians and clever claimant lawyers” in order to help expose the immoral actions committed by the tabloid giant. Despite the praise Gore gives to Davies for his book he does finish on a rather sour note, criticizing his work by saying his “outlook sometimes feels a little too black and white”.

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The review in the Guardian written by Henry Porter is also packed with praise for Davies, labelling him a “superb reporter” and describing his piece as being “the best account we have of the phone hacking scandal”. Porter goes on to say how Davies’ book exemplified how “standards and politics have been degraded” in modern Britain. He describes how Davies was driven by a “certainty” that he was “dealing with liars and bullies who had to be stopped”. Porter’s conclusion on hack attack is that it is an “exciting, clear and honest narrative”.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami’s tale of a man’s quest to uncover the meaning behind a destructive rift in his youth explores the author’s classic subject – the everyman. Inexplicably and suddenly abandoned by five close friends whom he left at home to study in Tokyo, Tsukuru is lost and confused. Yet a new, invigorating relationship with his girlfriend Sara gives him a refreshed sense of purpose. Murakami’s novel then pursues the mystery it has created, as Tsukuru sets out to understand his past mistakes and troubles, as well as where the meaning behind his life should really come from.

Boyd Tonkin in the Independent compares Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki  to “a Romantic piano piece that skips from nursery to cemetery,” claiming that “Murakami’s prose seamlessly fuses folksiness and profundity. The novel’s depiction of Tsukuru’s depression (the character himself described as a “self-doubting and slightly nerdy drifter, cast from a familiar Murakami mould”), is, according to Tonkin, “captured with all of Murakami’s richly metaphorical empathy for the lonely and lost.”  Murakami’s performative style is supposedly encapsulated by this “pilgrimage towards not truth so much as choice: a free, unqualified commitment to a person, a vocation, an art.”

Leo Robson, writing for The Telegraph, is less impressed, claiming that “the new novel marks a regression” with regard to Murakami’s broadening of perspective in previous works. Robson writes that “all that’s left – all we’re offered – is a learning curve posing as a mystery,” and finds the “unfriendly device, the structure that hinges on a single postponed revelation,” to be underwhelming. Similarly uninspiring is, in Robson’s view, the notion of Tsukuru’s inability to always express what he thinks or feels in words and normal linguistic communication. The problem, Robson observes, is that “the predicament being confronted feels too low-stakes and played-out to merit evocation in the first place.”

in The Spectator, a lucid James Walton calls it “impressive that such a brilliant myth emerges from such unspectacular ingredients.” Walton ascribes a difference between this and Murakami’s earlier works to the lack of “any need for qualifying ‘magic’” to the novel’s ‘realism.’ “Not that this makes the book any less mysterious and haunting,” he claims. The book’s elements “make for a wild and contradictory mix” which is “recognisable from our own lives.” Featuring a “moving and heartfelt sense of people essentially trying to do their best,” Walton thinks that Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki is a “rich and even brilliant piece of work.”   

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki is due to be published on 12 August and will be reviewed by Randy Boyagoda in this week’s New Statesman.