On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.
But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist-an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .
Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand-and fear-the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?
Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.
The Miniaturist is a historical novel with elements of magical realism, set in Amsterdam in 1686. I was lucky to receive a copy of this beautiful book from my daughter for Christmas. What a delight. There is so much hype about this novel. Did it meet my expectations? Read on and find out!
Now I truly understand what is meant by the term voice, the words of this novel just flow effortlessly, willing you to read more. The novel recants the unique story of Petronella (Nella) Oortman. Petronella moves from the country at the tender age of eighteen into an arranged marriage. Nella finds her new sister in-law, Marin, cold, unwelcoming and resentful of Nella’s intrusion into their lives. Marin does everything she can to makes it clear that she is the woman of the house, and not this awkward country girl.
Nella’s new home is her husband’s Johannes richly furnished home in Amsterdam. Johannes is much older, a well respected, wealthy merchant. Johannes may be considered quite a catch, but is he? Nella waits anxiously for the wedding night that never comes. Johannes is always working, or busy, but is he avoiding her? Johanne’s wedding present resembles an elaborate but exceedingly expensive doll’s house, a replica of their house. At first Nella is resentful of this wedding present, this miniature house seems to mock her youthfulness. It is a “monument to her powerlessness, her arrested womanhood.” It is no substitute for warmth or love that is sorely lacking in her marriage. Johannes happily gives Nella money to spend on the miniature house hoping that this will occupy his new bride, so that he can ignore her. Nella feels lost and lonely in this large house, with these unfamiliar servants, impudent Cornelia, the unfriendly maid, and former slave Otto. Johannes seems to care more for his dog Rezeki than he does for his wife. Even Nella’s much loved parakeet, Peebo, is banished out of her cosy bedroom and stored in the kitchen.
This is no fun filled household. The Calvinist burgomasters dictate that Amsterdammers eat their sugar in secret, and must not own dolls or any other replicas of the human form. Though Nella is aware of this, she chooses a tiny act of rebellion, she searches out and discovers a skilled miniaturist, and begins to furnish her miniature house.
At this point in the novel an undercurrent of delicious creepiness makes its way into the novel. Puzzles abound. The miniaturist starts to send her gifts that Nella hasn’t commissioned. A tiny lute for her cabinet that has working strings. How did the miniaturist know that she longed to played her lute? It seems that the miniaturist understands so much about her and the Brandt household. But, how is this possible? Nella starts to receive gifts from the miniaturist that seem to predict events that happen to the characters living in the house, and as the story progresses this extends in breadth to characters living outside the house. So, layer upon layer, this tale of hidden secrets cloaked by an air of respectability, cannot be contained within the walls of either the real house, or the replica. These long hidden secrets are exposed with terrible consequences. The church controls and dictates the morals of it’s flock in The Miniaturist and those that do not adhere to these morals are made to suffer, and boy do they suffer.
Nella turns out to be quite the heroine, not just the somewhat weak willed female she appears to be at the beginning of the novel. She grows into being an admirable woman. Her relationship with Johannes seems to go through a startlingly swift change, and her ability to forgive and accept grows with her maturity of outlook, given his tragic fall in circumstances.
Jessie Burton, what a spell-binding voice! It is as if the Miniaturist herself is speaking, reaching out to tell the story through the medium of a youthful girl who grows into adulthood as the novel progresses. It is a tale of forgiveness, friendship, love, greed, and betrayal. The novel speaks of the plight of woman at that time, their lack of freedom, and choices. Marriage was the ultimate goal, the only means to advance oneself as a woman. Even if that meant the possibility of a painful and miserable death whilst child-bearing. The character of Marin represents the desire for independence, a single woman standing fast against committing herself to marriage, yet even she can’t quite achieve what she hopes for. She still requires the protection of her brother instead of a husband, so, her supposed freedom is a sham too.
I do have a couple of points of contention. Why oh Why did Jessie Burton lose the thread of the miniaturist in this wonderful novel? This is a bit of a disappointment. So much more could have been discovered about this mysterious character. So many questions were left unanswered. The eeriness of the novel was somewhat lost (this attracted me so much and left me longing for more) and was replaced by events that were compelling, but lacked the rich story-telling direction of the miniaturist. Yet it was inevitable, because in the end we must be the storytellers of our own lives. I get the message.
Some of the revelations towards the end of the novel felt a little forced, and could have been developed more, in particular Otto’s secret love affair. The return of Otto appears a little rushed to me, almost a distraction from poor Johannes’s fate. Let’s have time to get over what happened to Johannes!
The final message of the novel appears to me to be: hope prevails in the wake of great loss, and we must live our lives, and not have our lives dictated for us.
The Miniaturist is a confident, wonderful debut novel. One I may return to for a second read.
“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”
“The surface of Amsterdam thrives on these mutual acts of surveillance, the neighborly smothering of a person’s spirit.”
“Pity, unlike hate, can be boxed and put away.”
“Amsterdam: Where the pendulum swings from God to a guilder.”
“The Seigneur’s spirit belongs with the seas,” Otto says. “And mine does not, Madame.”
Authors website: http://www.jessieburton.co.uk/
Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, and Magical Realism.
4 stars. It would have been a solid 5 if the miniaturist had stayed centre page for a little longer. C’est dommage!
Have you read The Miniaturist? If you have do comment below I’d love to hear your opinion on it.
Bye for now.
Marje @ Kyrosmagica xx