The Miniaturist: A Novel
- By Jessie Burton
- 416 pages
- Reviewed by M.K. Tod
- August 22, 2014
A young bride struggles to make sense of her new life in 17th-century Amsterdam in this evocative, atmospheric tale.
Nella Oortman is an innocent 18-year-old when she arrives in Amsterdam to join her new husband and assume her duties as the wife of the well-to-do and highly respected merchant trader Johannes Brandt. The year is 1686, a time when the Dutch East India Company sailed throughout Africa, India and Asia trading in spices, minerals, precious metals, and goods such as silk, cotton, tea, and porcelain. Instead of a warm welcome, Nella receives a vaguely hostile greeting from her husband’s sharp-tongued sister, Marin, and two servants, Cornelia and Otto.
Although her mother had warned Nella not to expect love, nothing had prepared her for such a strange household. Whispers, unanswered questions, odd noises, morbid paintings, and her husband’s frequent absences unsettle Nella. When Johannes gives her a tiny house for a belated wedding present, she finds a miniaturist to make furniture and other small items to furnish it. But instead of the items she requests, the miniaturist sends a collection of startling pieces accompanied by a note: “Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”
As the novel unfolds, Nella struggles to understand her husband and gain a measure of control over her destiny. Each step forward is followed by setbacks and by unexpected — somewhat threatening — gifts and warnings from the miniaturist.
Questions plague her. Is Cornelia a friend? Will Johannes ever love her? Is Otto a servant or a slave? Why does Marin make life so miserable? What is behind the strange occurrences connected with her miniature house? Nella is at times confused, at other times frustrated: “Life in this house isn’t just preposterous, it’s a game, an exercise in fakery.”
The Miniaturist is a masterpiece of atmosphere and tension wherein the political, pompous, and watchful city of Amsterdam emerges along with the strictures of a society dominated by the Calvinist church and powerful business elites. Burton reveals her plot with measured hints that keep a reader turning the pages well into the night. “Don’t worry,” Marin says at one point, “my brother knows the danger of having nothing to do.”
At another point, Nella reflects, “Being observed by Johannes is like being watched by an owl, she thinks. You feel pinioned.” Characters emerge through small details and brief bits of telling dialogue, such as Otto’s warning about Marin: “Would you kick a hive? It’ll only get you stung.” Imagery is evocative: “There is water everywhere she looks, lagoons still as glass, patched with murk like a foxed mirror when the weak sun moves behind cloud.”
Burton tells the story in present tense, a device that works well for this novel, heightening our awareness of time and place, while Nella’s voice changes from naïve to mature, and from innocent to knowing. Beyond Nella and her family are other unique characters: Pellicorne, the pious but crafty minister; Agnes and Frans Meermans, a couple whose actions have dire consequences for Nella and Johannes; Jack Phillips, who is not what he seems; and the ever-elusive miniaturist.
Bringing history to life without burdening the story with excessive detail is the mark of excellent historical fiction. Burton offers well-chosen details to ensure that the reader knows she or he is ensconced in 17th-century Amsterdam. We read of the pepper treaty with the Sultan of Bantam, a pewter betrothal cup, the animosity between Dutch and English, the hatred Calvinists have for Papists, the workings of the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch court system, the canals and markets of Amsterdam, the price of sugar. Such facts transport us to a different time.
The themes Burton explores are as relevant today as they were long ago: the corrupting influence of power; the way greed obscures truth; how being different threatens the mainstream; religious tyranny; the many paths to love; a woman’s place in society; and men as the makers of the worlds we live in.
If I had one reservation, it would be the prologue, which did not spark my interest as much as I imagine Burton would have wanted. But overall, The Miniaturist is a thoroughly engaging, beautifully written work of historical fiction.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her second novel, Lies Told in Silence, is set in WWI France and is available in print from Amazon and in e-book format from Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and GooglePlay. She can be contacted via Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.