A couple of years ago I made a resolution to occasionally buy books that I knew nothing about. I know, I shouldn’t strain myself, right? Anyway, the point was to seek out books that I hadn’t read reviews of; by an author that was new to me; and that didn’t have any ‘hype’. If you hang around book blogs, it’s harder than it sounds (but it’s okay, I’m coping). This is how I came across The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.
The testimonials by S. J. Watson, Hannah Kent and Deborah Moggach (who wrote the very interesting book, Tulip Fever) on the cover of the The Miniaturist were enough to prompt me to pick it up – such an odd mix of authors singing its praises.
The story is set in Amsterdam, in 1686. The city is ruled by the sea and Calvinist burgomasters (both grim and ever-threatening), and its people shun ostentatious displays – meals of cold herrings and bread while their sugar is eaten in secret; plain woolen clothes lined with the finest furs and silks.
“Founded on risk, Amsterdam now craves certainty, a neat passage through life, guarding the comfort of its money with dull obedience.”
Eighteen-year-old Petronella (Nella) Oortman arrives at the grand house of her new husband, the wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. The marriage is a strategic arrangement, providing wealth for Nella and a well-respected family name for Brandt. However Nella’s new life in Amsterdam comes with surprises – the household is run by Johannes’s bitter sister, Marin; Johannes does not come to Nella’s room at night, as her mother explained he would; and Nella receives an odd wedding gift from her new husband – a perfect miniature replica of their home, the rooms empty, with Nella charged to furnish them. And that’s when things start to get very odd…
Firstly, I’ll get my peeves out of the way – Nella (and some of the dialogue) is altogether too modern. I’m not convinced that a girl from the country would have the maturity and self-assurance to handle what comes to her. Is Burton deliberately toying with her readers, casting Nella as a worldly 17th century feminist?! Perhaps.
Then there’s the supernatural element of the plot which admittedly, I didn’t love. Burton uses it to tie up loose ends and I think in doing so she asks a little too much of her audience. But let your eyes skip ahead to my rating – four stars – because there was something captivating about this story and amongst the brash plot twists, are some utterly beautiful passages.
“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.”
The historical detail is rich and meticulous –
“Nella begins to scale the ladder, seeking out the sugar. It feels as if she is climbing through her husband’s life… Past bolts of Coromandel and Bengal silk, cloves, mace and nutmeg in crates marked Molucca, pepper labelled from Malabar, peels of Ceylonese cinnamon… Past Delft plates, casks of wine…, boxes of vermilion and cochineal, mercury for mirrors and the syphilis, Persian trinkets cast in gold and silver… Here is real life, she thinks, out of breath and giddy. Here is where true adventures come to land.”
The theme of being ‘trapped’ in a gilded cage is played out on many levels – literally with Nella’s pet parrot, Peebo, being banished by Marin to the kitchen; Marin’s secret life (exotic treasures and fur-lined corsets); Johannes’s man-servant, Otto, whom he rescued from slavery, only to become an object of curiosity in puritan Amsterdam; and of course Nella herself, trapped in a loveless marriage. The theme is such that the more you look, the more you find – I could provide a dozen more examples but that would be giving the story away.
4/5 I forgive Burton for some obvious missteps because the last few chapters were just wonderful. I *might* have even had a little cry.
Cornelia makes ‘olie-koeck’ –
“…the fried crust breaks apart under Nella’s teeth, releasing the perfect blnd of almond, ginger, clove and apple.”
Olie-koeck translates literally as ‘oil-cake’ – that might not sound so good except that we know them best as doughnuts. The Netherlands Bakery Museum describes the history of olie-koeck.