The Miniaturist is the much-hyped debut novel of the very talented Jessie Burton. Subject to a publishing bidding war before it was even released to near-universal acclaim in 2014, it eventually went on to be crowned Waterstone’s Book of the Year just in time for Christmas. As a result, the book was reprinted in a simply gorgeous cloth-bound cover with a pretty gold ribbon-bookmark. To be entirely honest, I didn’t think a story about a dollhouse set in 17th century Amsterdam sounded terribly exciting. I feared that the writing would be stuffy and dull. Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for pretty collectible books, so I bought it anyway and just left it on my shelves until I ran out of other things to read.
I was right about one thing. A story about a dollhouse in 17th century Amsterdam probably wouldn’t have been terribly exciting. It’s therefore a very good thing that The Miniaturist is not really about a dollhouse. It’s not even about the elusive titular Miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror the protagonist’s life in disconcertingly prophetic ways. It is about the dollhouse’s owner, eighteen-year-old Petranella Oortman who, after having grown up in the quiet countryside, must now adapt to vibrant city-living following her marriage to the wealthy, charismatic merchant, Johannes Brandt. Upon arriving in Amsterdam however, with no one but her pet parakeet Peeboo for company, Nella is greeted not by Brandt, but by his sharp-tongued deliberately cagey sister, Marin. It isn’t long before Nella deduces that the Brandts are keeping one or two very big, very dark, dangerous secrets from her. When Nella discovers precisely what those secrets are… well. Soon the canals of Amsterdam – a city as morally backward as it is commercially vibrant and progressive – begin to flow with blood instead of water.
Simply put this book is absolutely gripping and beautifully executed, from its gorgeous clothbound cover to its sharp, concise and evocative writing. Jessie Burton does not fall into the trap of telling her story in an outdated, laboured fashion, as many other historical-fiction writers are prone to do. The descriptions of Amsterdam are stunning, inserted subtly into the most unexpected places to achieve great effect. For example, one of the book’s very first lines is, ‘Words flow like water in Amsterdam’, which not only conjures images of the canals but also cleverly foreshadows the spilling of secrets and the foreboding nature of water. The plot is tight and surprisingly violent, completely subverting my expectations; I was not able to guess at a single revelation. The times when I actually knew what was going to happen, I was filled with such dread that I willed myself to be wrong. Every single character, from the naïve newly-wed Nella to the quiet, anguished servant Otto, are crafted as meticulously and realistically as the Miniaturist’s dolls. Johannes Brandt’s sister Marin in particular – so stoic and fierce in her religious fervour and hypocrisy – was an absolute tour-de-force of a character, completely unpredictable, and I loved her.
It’s interesting to note whilst we’re on the subject of characters that although Jessie Burton was inspired by the magnificent cabinet house owned by a real person called Petranella Oortman (who really was married to a merchant called Johannes Brandt in 17th century Amsterdam), everything she writes about their their lives – including their familial relations – is completely and utterly made-up. I found this very odd, and I’m not sure it was a very ethical thing to do (particularly where Johannes Brandt is concerned). I do not think the story would have suffered from a few simple name changes.
Any issues I had with this however, along with the ambiguous abilities of the Miniaturist, paled in comparison to everything else I enjoyed about this book. I didn’t want it to end, but at the same time couldn’t stop myself from reading, so emotionally invested was I in the fates of the characters. By the time I had turned the final page, I was at a complete loss, not only in terms of what I’d just read but also in terms of what on earth I was going to read next. The fact that this is a debut novel makes Jessie Burton’s achievement all the more impressive. I loved this book. Thoroughly recommended.
For more information on Jessie Burton and The Miniaturist, please visit her official website: