Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

jessieburton-theminiaturistOn an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman knocks at the door of a grand house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. She has come from the country to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt, but instead she is met by his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Only later does Johannes appear and present her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in unexpected ways . . .

Nella is at first mystified by the closed world of the Brandt household, but as she uncovers its secrets she realizes the escalating dangers that await them all. Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall?

Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist is set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. This was Holland’s Golden Age and as such an important part of my country’s heritage. For that reason alone the book would have been of interest to me. Add to that the wonderful inspiration for the book, the Oortman doll-house still on display in our Rijksmuseum, and the fact that a lot of people who’s opinion I respect were saying nothing but good things about it, and the book became a must-read.  

To be frank, I loved The Miniaturist to pieces, so much so that I don’t even know where to begin. From the synopsis I’d expected the novel to have a love story within its pages in addition to a mystery, yet while relationships are at the core of the narrative and love plays its part, this is not the story of a young wife falling in love with her husband. Instead the novel explores how secrets bind and divide people and how a society’s view of what is acceptable can stunt and shape people’s lives. Burton weaves a stunning tale that captivates with its central mystery and its characters.

For Nella, young and somewhat vulnerable, moving into the Brandt household is somewhat of a shocking experience. Hoping for a loving marriage, with all that entails, she’s disappointed and hurt to find her husband largely absent – ostensibly on business – and spending most of her time with her sister-in-law Marin and the servants Cornelia and Otto. The latter two are more family than staff having lived for Marin and Johannes for over five years since they were very young. Cornelia is a feisty, cheerful girl and soon becomes a friend to Nella. Otto is officially Johannes’ man servant, though he’s more of a steward for the household and he is something of a curiosity in Golden Age Amsterdam. Because Otto is black. Bought and freed by Johannes, he is devoted to the Brandt family, but always an outsider as people always regard him as a novelty and often treat him badly.

Marin and Johannes are quite enigmatic when we first meet them. It’s only slowly that they reveal themselves to Nella and the reader, in some cases not quite voluntary either. I loved Marin’s independent and headstrong nature. At points she comes across as a bully, not just domineering Nella, but Johannes as well. And strangely, Johannes lets her, which isn’t something you’d expect from a powerful merchant of that era. Johannes is a kind, though absent, man and he has some secrets of his own to keep. The growth in Nella’s regard and appreciation for both Marin and Johannes was very well handled and by the end had me in tears. Burton writes them just beautifully, with a sharpness and pathos that gives them a wonderful depth and brings them to life.

The rest of the cast is just as vividly drawn. I especially enjoyed the awful Agnes and Frans Meermans, clients of Johannes’ and old family friends turned rivals. They were deliciously horrid and petty, with just enough of a reason to be so to make them just this side of intolerable. But the most striking character of the book and the most elusive was the titular miniaturist. We never actually meet her, yet her presence in the book is all pervasive. I loved how Nella’s enchantment with her work slowly turns suspicious and later into horror. She becomes a brooding and threatening presence in Nella’s life and we never learn whether she means to aid or harm Nella and the rest of the Brandt household.

The darkness and mystery at the heart of the novel is like pure chocolate, bitter yet irresistible. The secrets revealed are tragic one and all and in some cases quite unexpected. Yet they all highlight the hypocrisy of society in what it deems acceptable and proper. It shows that you can get away with anything as long as it takes place behind closed doors and you have enough money and power to buy people off. Yet accumulate too much of both and people will do anything to bring you down. It’s a social commentary not just of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, but of contemporary society as well.

As I said above, I absolutely adored The Miniaturist. While its plot is resolved and the story brought to a resounding close, it left me wanting more. I didn’t want to leave Nella and her household, I wanted to know what happens next, what becomes of them now? Nella’s story may be over, but with The Miniaturist Jessie Burton’s has only just begun. This book is a stellar debut, one of my favourite books read so far this year, and I highly recommend it.

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