The Miniaturist is a historical novel set in seventeenth century Amsterdam. It’s the story of Nella (Petronella) Oortman, who at eighteen years old is married to a merchant she barely knows, Johannes Brandt. Nella moves into the Brandt household, but her new husband is rarely home and she struggles to feel accepted by his strict sister Marin. As a wedding gift, Johannes presents Nella with a miniature version of their house, and she hires a miniaturist to furnish it. However the mysterious miniaturist often sends extra, unsolicited items, which reflect the secrets of the Brandt household.
I really enjoyed reading The Miniaturist and, although it’s not exactly what you’d call fast paced a lot of the time, there were times when I was absolutely gripped by the storyline and couldn’t believe what was happening. I’ve never read anything set in Amsterdam before, and it was really interesting to see a representation of seventeenth century Dutch culture, especially in terms of trade and the reputation of merchants. Nella’s home-life with Johannes’ family certainly seemed fairly odd, but I was fascinated by it, especially by the strong character of Marin. I would have liked to have seen more of Johannes and I found his frequent disappearances and his lack of interest in his new wife very bizarre at first, although once I realised he was gay it obviously all began to make sense. I couldn’t help feeling so sorry for him though, because not only was his punishment horrifically shocking, but he was turned on by the man he at least had strong feelings for, if not loved. I do understand that his lover was trying to save his own skin, especially considering that the punishment for being gay was the death penalty, but it must have been another blow for Johannes. The whole time I was reading though, I felt sure that Jessie Burton would find a way to save Johannes, and so I couldn’t believe it when he was actually killed. I was desperately willing it not to happen, but I was so shocked when it did! And it was such an awful, awful way to die as well, I couldn’t believe the horror and injustice of it all.
Considering that the book was more often than not a slow read (and this is by no means a criticism, some books are written to be sped through and others are to be savoured and allowed to build), I was quite surprised by how many twists and turns and how many scandals occurred within Nella’s new family. I could never predict what would happen, and even though I read the prologue first which refers to a key scene right at the end of the book, I still wasn’t aware of exactly who the prologue related to until I fell into the scene itself. I think the unpredictable nature of the story is what kept it feeling exciting, even though it was a slow burn rather than leaping from one dramatic event to the next. (That’s not to say that there wasn’t a fair amount of drama thrown in though, because there definitely was!)
Of course The Miniaturist wasn’t perfect because books rarely are, but there wasn’t much that I found fault with as such. I did get a bit tired of Nella’s character at times because she seemed like a bit of a doormat, but she grew stronger and bolder throughout the narrative and became more proactive instead of wallowing in her problems and feeling sorry for herself. The character of the miniaturist is a bit of an odd one because it’s never resolved. We never find out who it is or how they know the things they know (I think we just have to brush it off as a wisp of magical realism), and normally I’d find it unsatisfying to be left with so many questions, but in this context I actually thought it worked rather well. The miniaturist was just an outside perspective who was necessary for manipulating the plot, but it wasn’t necessary that we knew who they were or what their involvement with Nella and the family was. It’s kind of strange that the story hinges on a mystery element which continues to remain a mystery, but I don’t think the same effects would have been achieved if plot elements had been revealed without the miniaturist’s intervention, and I think revealing too much would have tried to make the story too realistic and grounded, and might well have ruined the story. I suspended my disbelief when the idea of the miniaturist was introduced, and I think to make the character more concrete and believable would have failed, and to make it more fanciful could have asked too much of the reader. I felt that I was left with the right level of ambiguity, where I still had questions but, because I felt so involved with the other characters, I didn’t think it was a priority for my questions to be answered. I had more pressing things on my mind – what would happen with Otto and Thea, for instance.
The Miniaturist was a debut novel, and a highly successful one at that. I really enjoyed it, and if it’s a reflection of Jessie Burton’s writing at the start of her career, then I have great anticipation for what we’ll see from her a few years down the line. Her second novel, The Muse, is due to be released later this year (I think), and I’m sure I’ll find myself picking up a copy before too long.
See previous Book Review featuring Sarah Winman’s A Year of Marvellous Ways.