This post was republished into my blog’s original timeline from my lost posts archive
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
You know how it is with book group choices – sometimes you can’t find a lot to talk about? Well, The Miniaturist ISN’T one of those books! While it’s fair to say that no-one in our group absolutely loved it, we all thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel set in 17th century Amsterdam and it gave us a lot to talk about. For those few of you who haven’t read it yet, here’s an introduction:
Teenaged bride to be Nella arrives in Amsterdam from the countryside to wed wealthy middle-aged merchant Johannes Brandt, only to discover that he’s out. She is met by his sister, Marin, who is sharp of tongue and outwardly rather Puritan in nature. Later, Johannes arrives with a wedding gift for Nella – a cabinet house.
The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed. The nine rooms, from the working kitchen, the salon, up to the loft where the peat and firewood are stored away from the damp, are perfect replicas. ‘It’s got a hidden cellar too,’ Johannes says, lifting the floor up between the working and best kitchens, to reveal a concealed empty space. The ceiling in the best kitchen has even been painted with an identical trick of the eye. Nella remembers her conversation with Otto. Things will spill over, he’d said, pointing his finger to that unreal dome. …
‘I thought it would be a good surprise,’ Johannes says.
‘But, Seigneur,’ says Nella. ‘What must I do with it?’
Johannes looks at her, slightly blank. He rubs the velvet curtains between forefinger and thumb before drawing them shut. ‘You’ll think of something.’
Nella, although not sure if, at the age of eighteen, a doll’s house is appropriate for her, engages the services of a miniaturist whom she finds in the list of local traders to furnish and populate it. She never actually meets the miniaturist, yet the pieces provided are strangely accurate, as if the artisan knows the house and its inhabitants … Meanwhile, as she gets to know the household she begins to uncover secrets, dangerous ones that could be the downfall of them all.
Where to start – well, we jumped in with Marin, who was the most intriguing character – she was rather like Mrs Danvers at first, fiercely protective of her brother, and in the early stages we wondered whether there was incest between them. As we got to know the five members of the household, Johannes, Marin, Nella, maid Cornelia and manservant Otto, it became clear that all had secrets and because of them were outsiders. Otto who was rescued from slavery in Dahomey (now Benin) and Cornelia were intriguing because although servants, they had considerably more freedom than one would normally expect; yet Otto, as a black man was all too visible outside. Johannes is rarely there, and when he is, he closets himself in his study with his beloved dogs. Nella doesn’t know what to do – this marriage is not turning out to be what she expects.
When things really start to happen, it is a warehouse full of sugar cones from Surinam that sets it all off. They belong to the Meermans – inherited by Agnes, and Johannes has been asked to be their merchant. Agnes and Frans Meermans represent all that is bad about the business world in Amsterdam (think of Poldark’s Warleggans!). They are hypocrits, and like all the others are happy to turn a blind eye to all kinds of goings on as long as their own interests are protected. Once they break silence causing dire trouble for Johannes, poor Nella is left to take charge for poor Marin has her own cross to bear. I can’t say any more about plot elements.
A couple of weeks ago Victoria wrote an excellent post about historical accuracy in novels, in terms of imposing 21st century values on their fictional characters, in particular feisty feminist heroines who go adventuring unchaperoned. We had a good discussion about this for Marin does a lot of Johannes’ paperwork – but all in the house. Nella, who comes from a formerly well-to-do family in the countryside outside the city, is used to more freedom, and finds it hard to stay in.
As to the role of the miniaturist, who appears to have a kind of seventh sense, on the one hand we’d have loved to know more – but on the other, it didn’t matter, although the slight magical realism implied was rather a distraction for me. Was the miniaturist controlling all the action by the prescience in the figures produced? At first you may think that Nella is just a doll herself, but once she takes charge she proves herself worthy of the trust put in her.
We also wondered if there was scope for a sequel in what Nella did next, a prequel about the mysterious miniaturist, or even Johannes and Otto – (we agreed that there wasn’t enough Otto); but we decided it was best left open. The Miniaturist is an impressive debut novel, with plenty of intrigue and a level of suspense that kept us all gripped.
Source: Own copy.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Picador, 2014). Paperback, 400 pages.