Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is a book which has been on countless best seller lists and won numerous awards, inviting intrigue with its rather stunning cover design by Katie Tooke. Being a lover of history, I was always planning to read this book, and I am ridiculously glad I finally did.
The plot focuses upon Nella Oortman, an eighteen year old girl who arrives in Amsterdam to the home of her new husband, the wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt. Having shared minimal interaction previous to this, Nella’s husband is a figure shrouded in mystery, as is the rest of the house, consisting of Johannes’s sister and their two servants. Nella is gifted, as the blurb explains, with ‘an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home’. Nella pursues arrangements for this gift to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, and what follows is the unravelling of the secrets of her new home, which appears to hang in the hands of the miniaturist and her uncanny work.
I went into this book with rather limited expectations. All I knew was what the blurb had divulged upon me, a blurb which is heavy on the emphasis of the figure of the miniaturist. In reality, I felt that the miniaturist was a much smaller aspect of the novel compared to the domestic and personal drama of the household. However, I do not think this damaged the novel in anyway. I loved Jessie Burton’s writing style, and felt she was especially proficient in her building and development of characters. As such, the first half of the novel seemed to me much more character driven, following characters that Burton enfolds in mystery and speculation to a thrilling extent. Who is Johannes? What is he hiding? Why is he such an elusive presence to his new wife, and indeed the household in general? Why is his sister, Marin, so severe and abrupt? What are the servants hiding? What are they all collectively holding back on? Like Nella, we as readers are left wondering these curiosity inducing questions.
Although it felt secondary to the novel, the plot device of the miniaturist did gain speed in the second half, and I did become more interested in discovering who they actually were. The miniaturist appears to be a foreshadower of future events for the family, and whilst this seemingly magical element is given precedent in both title and blurb, I did not feel a burning desire to unravel the darkness enshrouding this omen bringing. Additionally, this character is left as ambiguously as originally found at the books conclusion, something I admittedly found rather irksome. Perhaps Burton is planning on bringing back this character for further explanation in a future book?
One of the strengths of this novel definitely lies, for me, in the historical backdrop of Amsterdam in 1686, during the Dutch Golden Age, a period I knew practically nothing about (and was later inspired to independently research – thank you Wikipedia!). Not only did I enjoy the plot of this book, but I felt like I was simultaneously learning so much about a different culture. Through Johannes and various other aspects, readers experience Amsterdam’s rich profit and reliance on overseas trade, with significant focus upon the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Burton’s characters often express the sentiment that they must either ‘sink or swim’, an expression which resonates ever the more because of Amsterdam’s great involvement with trading across the sea.
Likewise, the novel contains other historical facts which help to enrich the reading experience, allowing us to fully immerse ourselves into the Amsterdam life. Realistically, The Miniaturist is a work of fiction, and it is never going to be a comprehensive, accurate historical account. Nevertheless, you can see the work and research that Burton has undertaken to make her story as accurate as a fictional writer without extensive historical training can, and for that I readily take my hat off in acknowledgment of her undoubtedly time consuming work.
What I was not expecting, but was pleasantly surprised to discover, was the interesting look this book takes on both gender and sexuality in a Dutch society. Whilst this cannot be elaborated further without plot spoilers (ones I admittedly think are rather easy, yet still exciting to guess), it was a well received plot device. In the same strand, the characters of the family’s two servants also offered an opportunity to look at class in relation to the Dutch Golden Age, one which I would be interested to read more of in the future.
In many ways, this book was largely reminiscent of Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger; high praise indeed! I thoroughly enjoyed the marriage seen between domestic drama and historical fact, creating a rich and colourful world in which Burton’s characters strive to survive emotionally and physically. The dynamics within the Brandt house certainly took precedence for me over any ambiguity surrounding the miniaturist, and they have definitely left an impression on my mind. Likewise, I strongly admire the ways in which Burton was not afraid to take her work to much darker places than perhaps an initial glance would assume, embracing the reality of the gritty endings which thousands of individuals have unfortunately suffered before us. This book was tantalisingly close to becoming a 5* read for me. Sadly, the emphasis placed on the miniaturist, and the way in which the ending of the novel left me feeling as if our business in Amsterdam was not concluded, resulted in an overall rating of 4.5*. That being said, that really is an impressive rating for a book, and I really did absolutely adore this book. I await the next novel of Burton’s – The Muse – with an eager mind!
Rating: 4.5* (so close to a 5!!)