I have to admit I bought Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist because of its beautiful cover. Not only is it beautifully designed and colourful, but it’s also soft and kind of waxy to touch. How could anyone resist?
Burton tells the story of 18 year old Petronella Oortman, who is sent to Amsterdam to live with her new, wealthy merchant husband, Johannes Brandt. Their marriage is an arrangement, and the house is big and unfriendly, also inhabited by Johannes’ strict sister, Marin, an orphan maid and a former slave. Johannes shows no interest in his bride, and barely talks to her during her first few weeks in her new home.
Yet, one day he arrives home with a wedding gift, a dollhouse made of tortoiseshell and intricately carved, with marble tiles and gold-embossed wallpaper. It is, in fact, an identical representation of the house they live in. With nothing else to do, Petronella searches for someone to make her furniture to fill the dollhouse, and finds an address for the miniaturist. What she doesn’t expect however, is for the miniaturist, an anonymous artist, to begin to tell her future through tiny carvings that she never asked for. Amsterdam is oppressed by the Burgomasters, and the people in Johannes’ house are keeping secrets. All of this is only a beginning to the surprising events that unfurl in this novel.
The book wasn’t a gripping page turner, as I found that events happened at quite a slow pace, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the story every time I put it down. Nella is definitely a girl ahead of her time for a 17th century wife- she is strong and quite the feminist. She grows as a character throughout the novel, becoming more headstrong and less delicate and naïve. She did frustrate me at times with her growing affection for Johannes, who I found quite selfish, although an interesting and vivid character. It is the mystery around a more inconspicuous character that added the depth to the novel for me, and I loved how the details of this character’s life were unravelled as I read.
You can tell a lot of research has got into the book, as Jessie Burton brings the settings alive. Her depiction of Amsterdam in the 1680s feels authentic, and there is even a glossary at the end. Burton writes in the present tense, which I usually dislike, however here it worked very well, as it gives a feeling of closeness and a sense of immediacy to the story. There are some beautifully written passages in this novel. Here are some favourites.
“Nella pictures her husband under boiled blue skies, upon hot sands laced with tinkling shells and shed blood.”
“Lions the size of ladybirds have been carved on their arm-rests, the backs are covered with green velvet, studded with copper nails. On each of the arms, sea monsters writhe in acanthus leaves.”
‘You look like a coin!’ exclaims Agnes – and the ridiculous comment, thrown hard and bright in the air, falls to the floor with a thud.
“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”
All in all, I loved this book, and it has gained its place on my shelf of treasured novels!