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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Thursday, 3 January 2008

A few thoughts on The Miniaturist by Kunal Basu

by Suzan Abrams in Dublin

I don't have the time to do a book review which would include a fair bit of forethought, such is the scholarly aptitude that is demanded of The Miniaturist by Kunal Basu who has also published The Opium Clerk and Racists to successful British reviews in the recent past, however quietly done.

Because of the writing of my own fiction that now consumes time and energy, I can only offer to say how much I enjoyed this historical novel which I finished reading in 2 days; one that combined pomp and pagentry with the painful and darker issues of humanity, so thoughtfully exposed.

The plot encircles Bihzad, the son of the chief artist in Emperor Akhbar's court, set in 16th century North India, who on inheriting his father's talent, immediately becomes the much-coveted apple of the Emperor's eye.

However, Bihzad would carelessly bungle up this prized favour and to an added horror would create self-imposed punishments to stifle a dangerous restlessness and discover his new identity as a human being and lover. The most painful point is when the brilliant artist chooses to give up his art altogether.

I met Basu in Singapore during the recent Writer's Festival where he was invited to give a reading in just as luxurious a museum as the paintings and studios described in the novel. The Calcutta-born professor at Oxford, even dressed in full Mogul gear, with the hopeful desire to transform us his readers with a touch of magic, directly to the ancient Indian palaces of old.

"I love writing, am very prolific and for some reason was obsessed with this story to a point that I would do the required research at all hours and write furiously until I had finished everything in just a few months," he enthuses. "My agent was waiting for another fiction manuscript at the time but I put that on hold and finished this one very quickly instead. I felt completely consumed by my characters from start to end.

Indeed, it is one of the best novels I have read in a long time.

The alluring and sensuous story is made of a powerful characterisation and an excellently drawn-up plot featuring palaces, wastelands, harems and markeplaces with equal fervour; without relying on any kind of a sensational event or melodrama. Lavish episodes and lush descriptions are subtly played out. There is attention given to the detailing of human emotion in an expansive plot that also signals the hedonistic pleasures of carnal interludes with remarkable ease. Each character-feeling however significant or sullen, is carefully studied with apt psychological insight..no matter the minute declaration of any trifling or vanishing thought. The reader is left feeling mellow and satisfied at the end.

For excellent reviews of The Miniaturist, please read The Independent Online Edition & The Observer

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