The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for unwanted gifts


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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Unwanted gifts

Cure: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

As the days after Christmas turn into weeks, the question of what to do with those unwanted gifts cannot be eluded any longer. Because however much you have been trying to like that reindeer jumper or rotating disco ball, the fact is that they are cluttering up your house. Now that you've left it so long that your window of refund opportunity has closed, you'll need a novel with a firm, guiding hand to help you decide what to do. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton tackles the issue of unwanted gifts with imagination – and an enjoyable absence of sentimentality.

Set in Amsterdam in 1686, the novel begins with Nella Oortman arriving at her new home in one of the wealthiest parts of town. Aged 19, she is taking up residence with her illustrious husband Johannes Brandt, who has a gift for "making gold out of mud" – and has some serious secrets to hide. Soon Nella is made aware that she will be almost entirely ignored by her hard-working spouse, and therefore has a lot of time on her hands. But when Brandt gives her a magnificent gift – a three-storey replica of their own house – she is by no means entranced. "What am I to do with it?" she asks him. "You'll think of something," comes the careless reply.

At first affronted to be treated like a child who will practise her housekeeping on a doll's house, Nella is slowly lured into the world of the super-small. She commissions a mysterious artist to make her tiny items with which to furnish the cabinet-house; and the artist turns out to have a clairvoyant ability to see not only into Nella's household but, it seems, her very soul. To her credit, Nella plays with her unwanted gift as much as she can before she realises she has to be free of it. But by then, perhaps, it's too late.

Rid yourself of your unwanted gifts before you become so accustomed, that you no longer notice they're there. Left unattended, inanimate objects can exert a powerful negative influence.