International best-seller The Miniaturist is the first novel by author Jessie Burton, who fancied a story around a dollhouse for adults that now sits in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and which dates back to the late 1600s.
Petronella is eighteen years old and the new trophy wife of Johannes Brandt, a merchant. Having moved away from her childhood in Assendelft, she must now make her home in the Brandt family’s stately house in seventeenth century Amsterdam.
Her husband pays her no attention but bestows her with a strange wedding present in the form of a miniature house that accurately replicates her new home. It is made of oak and elm, covered in tortoiseshell casing and inlaid with pewter, and Johannes duly foretells that elm is “used for coffins.”
With an ever-absent husband, a nasty sister-in-law and two servants more at ease in their surroundings than their new mistress, Nella finds herself turning to the cabinet house for comfort. She commissions pieces from a miniaturist whom she finds through an advertisement. Little does she know just what powers she has unleashed, for the elusive miniaturist seems intent on foretelling the Brandts’ story through the tiny objects and dolls, as well as the notes that accompany each delivery.
Burton starts her story with the ending, transporting us to a funeral as seen through the eyes of one who has come to watch the proceedings and leave her parting gift to the deceased. Who it is we know not as yet, nor the meaning of her offering. The ensuing tale will leave us always wondering who will end up in that coffin at the end.
The author introduces all characters with the same gusto, be it the improbable heroine, the wronged man or the villain. Through them, she brings to light the injustices of their time, as well as past centuries’ obsession with religion and money, two competing gods that stand at odds. “In Amsterdam, God, for all His glory, only goes so far.”
Double standards also seem to have a part to play. A love of sugar is considered a sin, and yet one thousand five hundred loaves of sugar stored in a warehouse and ready to be traded for big money belongs to those who best try to uphold the city’s religion and rules!
Most of the time, the narrative leaves us hanging, wanting more, and yet after every cliffhanger it slows our hearts back down to their usual beat, because for all the expectation, things are usually more overwhelming and unnerving in Nella’s head than they should be. As the enigmatic Marin, Johannes’ sister, tells the young bride, “You saw what you wanted to see.”
Meanwhile, a key character’s destiny hinges on the other characters’ inexperience with childbirth. Burton completely ignores the third stage of labour, which happens regardless of the characters’ incompetence, therefore creating a very dubious scenario. I also find it hard to believe that another character, engaging in what was considered to be illegal activity, would have been so careless as to allow himself to be discovered.
Even the ending is anti-climactic, and the novel leaves much unanswered. Some details are contradictory, such as whether the miniature figures are really changing or if it’s all happening in Nella’s head. The miniaturist, at first central to the plot, disappears without a trace and leaves us wondering whether the artist was intuitive or else a prophet. It seems to me in the end, it turns out not to be about what the miniaturist wants or plans, but about what is already there.
For a debut novel, it is beyond compare in its fascinating details, and Burton’s prose is almost poetry, making even the inanimate come to life in a reverent way. However, the tale sometimes bends under the weight of heavy phrases.
All in all, The Miniaturist is worth the read, but this is more to do with the exceptional way in which we are taken on the ride rather than for its culmination to a satisfying end. Most of the time, it is implausible at best and we feel as cheated as the characters by a mundane ending to such an extraordinary tale.
The book for this review was kindly provided by Agenda Bookshop.