I remember The Miniaturist being absolutely huge when it came out. The combination of a richly imagined and evoked city, a cast of complex, flawed and mysterious characters, along with a hint of magical realism and plenty of intrigue, all combined to create a darkly atmospheric historical novel that people are still talking about today. It explored a period in history and a country that isn’t a typical setting for historical novels: 17th century Holland. All of this combined to make it pretty unique as novels go, which makes recommending titles for people who enjoyed it that little
bit more difficult. However, I do have a few novels in mind that I would be very happy to recommend to fans of The Miniaturist.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
This book opens with Nathaniel, a telegraphist at the Home Office, coming home to his apartment one day to find a beautifully crafted watch waiting for him, with no indication of who delivered it. When the watch saves his life in a terrorist bombing, he is led to the door of the watch’s mysterious and enigmatic maker, a Japanese immigrant called Keita Mori, who seems to know more than he’s letting on. Meanwhile, an eccentric scientist called Grace is conducting a series of experiments in her desperation to prove the existence of a substance called luminiferous ether. There’s also a very cute clockwork octopus thrown into the mix. The paths of all these characters will cross and they discover the existence of possibilities that they would never have believed.
This novel shares so many of the features that made The Miniaturist so great. The watchmaker is a talented craftsman, shrouded in mystery and seeming to know so much more than he should, just like the miniaturist in Jessie Burton’s novel. The book is also set against a very interesting historical and cultural backdrop; while the novel is set in 19th century London, the twist is that it explores the presence of Japanese immigrants and culture in London during this period, something that I’ve never read about in a novel before. Also, this novel’s own brand of magical realism (although there’s a bit more magic than realism when compared with The Miniaturist) is awesome, if more than a little mind-bending (wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey, to nick an expression from Doctor Who). I’ve read this twice now and it still manages to wrap my mind in knots!
The Night Circus by Erica Morgenstern
This is definitely more fantasy than magical realism; it has a wonderful dreamlike, mysterious quality to it and had me wondering and guessing the whole way through. In this novel, two children are bound into a magical contest, the rules of which neither of them quite understand. The venue for this challenge: an extraordinary, wondrous, magical circus, the likes of which nobody has ever seen before. It appears from nowhere and disappears without warning. As each of the contestants enchant the circus in increasingly complex and elaborate ways to outwit their opponent, more and more people are ensnared by the magic and mysteries of the circus. The two challengers are slowly and inexorably drawn towards one another as their opponent’s feats of magic lead each to wonder about the person behind the marvels.
Although I think this novel is completely unique (I spent an absolute age trying to write a summary that even vaguely conveyed half of what the novel is about), it reminds me of The Miniaturist for several reasons. It also contains so many excellent, strongly written characters and its historical setting is similarly immersive, perfectly capturing the 19th century obsession with the magical, the fantastical and the supernatural. It exudes mystery and intrigue in equal measure and every page sparkles with exquisitely descriptive, yet often darkly atmospheric, writing. This novel is perfect for fans of The Miniaturist and for anyone who loves stories that embrace both history and magic.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Another novel with a unique historical setting, The Snow Child takes place in the bleak wilderness of 1920s Alaska. Jack and Mabel, a middle-aged couple left heartbroken and desolate by their inability to have children, have decided to move to Alaska to farm an isolated homestead in an attempt to rebuild their life anew. One night in a rare moment of marital harmony, they go out into the snow and build a little snow-girl together, pouring into it all of their devastation and longing for the child they so desperately wanted. The next day, the snow-girl has melted away, but a real, living and breathing little girl mysteriously appears on their land and slowly becomes a part of their lives. She becomes their redemption, and begins to heal the raw wounds left behind by the baby they were never able to have.
This book is simultaneously ethereally magical and realistically gritty, combining fairytale-like descriptions of the Alaskan landscape with more brutal depictions of the harsh lifestyle, of wild animals, hunting, red blood on white snow. As with The Miniaturist, where the enigmatic and mysterious miniaturist constantly hovers in the reader’s consciousness, making them question what is real and what isn’t, in this novel too there is always a question mark over what is real and what exists purely in the imagination of the characters. As with the other novels on this list, Ivey’s marvellously descriptive writing really helps this book to stand out and her love for her native Alaska is clear to see.
The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin
Bear with me here. I know that this is the most “out there” recommendation on this list but I thought I’d throw in a wild card. Where are the similarities between a literary historical novel and this historical crime thriller? Well, they both vividly depict the rich, dark atmosphere and historical context of the cities in which they are set. In The Axeman’s Jazz, the ambience of 1920s New Orleans spills from each and every page – the music, the sights and the melting pot of people and cultures come together to create a wonderfully immersive and evocative experience. It is equally full of secretive and complex characters, each with their own objectives and motivations. It is a dark story, full of violence and suspicion, and each of the characters has a different reason for seeking answers.
The novel is actually based around a real letter that was sent to a New Orleans newspaper in the 1920s. The anonymous writer of this letter claimed responsibility for a spate of murders, styling himself “The Axeman” (like an American Jack the Ripper). Three separate characters begin to individually look into the murders, each following different lines of enquiry and discovering different clues. They don’t know it, but between them they are drawing perilously close to solving the case, and slowly their investigations begin to converge.
Did you enjoy (or not) The Miniaturist or any of the books I’ve recommended? I’d love to hear opinions!