Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Book - The Miniaturist by Jessie BurtonThe Miniaturist is an intriguing work of historical fiction which immediately draws you in to the world of seventeenth century Amsterdam – a world ruled by Burgomasters and Guilds, where neighbours spy on each other and traders show off their riches. Burton tells the story of Nella, a young country girl arriving at the home of Johannes Brandt (her new husband and a wealthy merchant) who seems distant and uninterested in her. But he does present her with a wedding gift – a perfect miniature replica of her new home.   

Nella struggles to settle into her new life, but soon finds some pleasure in commissioning furniture and other items for her miniature house. The elusive miniaturist creates exquisite pieces, far beyond Nella’s expectations. It is only when she is presented with unasked for and eerily accurate representations of real items in her home, that Nella begins to fear the miniaturists’ powers of prediction. As things begin to unravel, secrets are revealed, and the miniaturist seems to know more than any of them.

The plot is certainly not what I was expecting, and Burton expertly transports the reader to another time and place – some of the description in the novel is quite breath-taking. Nella is young but not naïve, and the other characters are fascinating in their own ways. I enjoyed reading about Otto, the only African man in Amsterdam, who consequently attracts a lot of attention, and Cornelia, the maid who speaks her own mind. There is a lot of mystery in the beginning, and a host of secrets waiting to be revealed.

I was a little disappointed by the novel’s ending, as I felt that there were too many loose ends and unanswered questions. We don’t really discover much about the miniaturist’s fate, or about this character’s motivation and circumstances. The plot is gripping, though, and it’s beautifully written, giving a window on a world very different to our own. Here is a sample of the text from the beginning of the novel:

“On the step of her new husband’s home, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker, embarrassed by the thud. No one comes, though she is expected. The time was prearranged and letters written, her mother’s paper so thin compared with Brandt’s expensive vellum. No, she thinks, this is not the best of greetings, given the blink of a marriage ceremony the month before – no garlands, no betrothal cup, no wedding bed.”

The Miniaturist is published by Picador.

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