“Life here is indeed topsy-turvy – seeming wrong, but shining a light upon them all.”
This debut novel from Jessie Burton has sparked a immense hype and praise since it’s release last year, receiving a number of awards and accolades. I picked it up knowing little more than that it was a historical story with a gorgeous cover. And, after a slow start, I was pleasantly surprised.
The story is set in seventeenth century Amsterdam – a period which took me a little out of my comfort zone, as I’ve read few books set this far in the past. Nella Oortman arrives at a luxurious house in the heart of the city to live with her new husband, Johannes Brandt. The marriage isn’t one born from love, but from convenience, the constraints of society and pressure from Nella’s traditional mother.
As Nella sees the city and house for the first time, so does the reader through her eyes, and the unfamiliar, lavish setting is beautifully portrayed in a way which is both intriguing and a little unnerving. Nella moves in with Johannes, his unmarried sister Marin and their two servants, Otto and Cornelia. Having dreamed of the perfect marriage she soon has to face reality; Johannes doesn’t join her in their marriage bed, and instead gives her a dolls house to ‘distract’ her and occupy her time.
“It is not a man she has married, but a world. Silversmiths, a sister-in-law, strange acquaintances, a house she feels lost in, a smaller one that frightens her.”
At first Nella is angered by the extravagant gift, which seems a poor substitute for a loving marriage. But, with little other choice, she takes to the task of furnishing the house and commissions a miniaturist to create all the things she loves in miniature form. But she gets more than she bargained for when, as well as her commissions, she begins receiving more pieces which weren’t asked for, miniature recreations of items and people in the house where she lives. Why is the miniaturist sending them? And how does the miniaturist know so much about Nella’s new life?
“It’s showing me my own story, she thinks, the miniaturist has become the author of it. How I wish I could have it back.”
Despite it being the novel’s title, the miniaturist is not really the focus of this novel for me. While the sporadic arrival of a little package adds intrigue to the story and some excitement to Nella’s existence, the miniaturist really serves to help Nella understand herself and the people around her better. The small miniature dolls hint at dark secrets, untold truths and events which are yet to unfold. They’re exciting, but if you’re reading this book waiting for a full back story and explanation of the miniaturist’s actions, you may be disappointed.
I knew very little about seventeenth century Amsterdam when I started this novel, and I did find it a little slow to start. There is quite a lot of talk of trading – particularly the trading of sugar – which is something I know very little about and don’t have any particular desire to. But after the first few chapters, I got swept away in the lush location, the bustling city and the uneasy atmosphere of the household. Jessie Burton clearly did her research for this novel, and she captures every aspect of the time, from the Golden Age of trading to the Burgomasters’ strict regime and the prejudices, racism and sexism which inevitably took place.
“This city is like no other city in the world, Nella. It is brilliant, but it is bloated.”
There’s plenty of controversy for the time too; as the tale picks up pace Burton weaves in illicit affairs, racial tensions and even the murder of a dog. But the main constant throughout is Nella – she’s a really strong character who grows throughout the novel, and it was a pleasure to follow to her on her journey as she discovered the truth about those around her, and the strength in herself.