Book review: The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges

(courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Life may not seem all that magical much of the time, largely because for all the beauty and romance it is capable of, there’s a great deal of pain and loss too.

So overwhelming can that grief become that finding something wondrous in its midst can feel like an impossible thing, a wild goose chase for love and happiness among so much that is manifestly not.

The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges has this torment of opposing emotional states at its beautifully wrought heart, finding a way, on the most quirky and yet groundedly human of premises, to bring them together and make being alive feeling a lot less conflicted and alone and far more alive and connected.

It centres, rather wonderfully, on our titular character who, for reasons best left to the reading of the novel, has spent 29 years living as a recluse in the cabin her much-loved, now-departed grandfather built, her only companions, her mother and her best friend Gwen (who also doubles as her part-time business partner of sorts) and a miniature mansion that acts for all the world like a portal to some magical realm.

Sometimes as Myra watches, but often confoundingly when she does not, rooms she has painstakingly worked on over weeks and months – taught by her step-grandmother Trixie, Myra is able to create all kinds of miniature wonders – disappear or reconfigure themselves, defying space and time and reshaping the parameters of the young woman’s sheltered existence which is defined by the blog she has created charting the changes of this most beautiful but mysterious of possessions.

Myra didn’t mention that the house was never really finished, because she’d never really found all of it. New rooms would sometimes appear overnight, blank canvases in three dimensions, sometimes the size of a closet, sometimes a ballroom. She would spend days or weeks completing them and, the next morning, find them gone. Every handmade piece of furniture, every hand-sewn handkerchief or painted book or vase, every piece of floorboard, swallowed by the Mansion. Each such project honed her skills–design, and sewing, and woodworking–that she’d learned so many years before from Trixie and her grandfather. And letting all that work go, swept away to whoever the Mansion took things, still hurt sometimes.

While Myra is making a name for herself across the internet with her charting of the miniature mansion, which drives hordes of fan to recreate its many wonders, Virginia-based Alex Rakes, heir to a family furniture warehouse fortune whose only back working with his aloof and emotionally damaged father as a favour, is finding life to be as far rom magical as you can get.

Nothing like his father Rutherford, who has spent his life beset by extreme mood shifts and a dark resentment to his now-disappeared mother, Alex is living in the family’s actual, real life mansion which, he is staggered to learn, has a very small counterpart right across the country.

Even more astonishing is the fact that two customers come in one day seeking to remake his actual bedroom in miniature, and staggered that someone he’s never met thousands of miles from him has been able reproduce it in exact tiny detail, down to an item of furniture he has only just bought, he connects with Myra who has reluctantly opened herself, at Gwen’s suggestion, to meeting one of her blog’s devotees as a way of raising some much-needed funds.

While they are brought together, via email and then text, solely as contest winner and blog owner, they soon find they have something mystically wondrous in common which defies all known rationality but which exists as surely as anything in their less-than-perfect lives.


While The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone may be premised on the most idiosyncratically magical of ideas, at its heart it is a love story, a meeting of two lonely people who find themselves connected in ways that defy the odds and which fill a strange void in them that may have a commonality of cause that will add further to the thrillingly strange but wholly lovely and soul-nourishing links between them.

United at first by the great losses they have encountered in life, with their very meeting the result of a moment of crisis for Myra who long ago retreated to the safe surrounds of her family home and is reluctant to step away from its welcoming confines, Myra and Alex soon find out that more connects that simply the fact that her miniature mansion has a big real world counterpart in Alex’s sprawlingly odd and weirdly alive family home.

With a narrative bolstered by expositional chapters that fill in much of the family background of both characters, and which sap the energy of the main story which thrives with all that back knowledge at its heart, The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone is a delightful, emotionally robust novel that knows how hard it can be to transcend pain and suffering but which assures it is possible, and possible in the most wondrously human of ways.

‘Big feelings are scary.’ Ellen’s cigarette lighted clicked. ‘And it sounds like that girl’s kept her world pretty tiny. But some things are bigger than all of us. Leave the details here to me and come back when you’re ready. Find out what you’re looking for. Good luck.’

Reading this gorgeously alive novel, you are reminded time and again that we live in the smallest and most connected of worlds, and that while we can often lose the magicality of existence as time goes on and adulthood snuffs out the hopeful expectation of childhood, that it is beyond redemption or recovery.

You could hardly blame Myra or Alex for wondering if this is possible, with both scarred by life’s capacity to rip asunder the hopefulness of childhood, and indeed Myra in particular struggle with opening a heart long closed to possibility and newness, unless it is in the form of her beloved miniature mansion which is all the change she wants or needs.

But as The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone unfolds with stories avowedly human and beautifully magical, all woven together in stories of existential woe that grapple with finding something good onto which to cling, you begin to understand that while their connection defies rationality, that is really rather miraculously and restoratively ordinary.

The kind of ordinary we all need and which the human heart is joyously capable of delivering on – connection with others which, while it may begin in extraordinary circumstances (for Alex and Myra, it’s more extraordinary than most) becomes the stuff upon the bedrock of life is built upon, sustaining and reshaping people whom life has bent, sometimes literally, all out of shape.

The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone is a dream of a novel to read, embracing magical realism and real, pain-filled but love-possible humanity, the kind which knows how bleak being alive can be, even with unusually sentient miniature houses in your possession, but which also believes with all its distance-separated heart that love and connectivity is well within our grasp whose own grounded magic may well prove more potent that the kind that brings two lonely, sad people together in the first place.

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