The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

 So, I kinda fell in love with this book. After reading some other critics though, I started to wonder if I was being too generous… But let’s dive in and examine it in greater detail.

For those of you who are — like I was until recently, late to the party; The Miniaturist takes place in 17th century Amsterdam. It centers around Nella, a penniless young aristocrat who has just marrried a wealthy merchant. As she steps into his house, she enters a world of secret and deceptions. Besides her husband Johannes, the household comprises Marin, his sister; Cornella the maid, and Otto, his black servant.

Follow intrigues around love, hatred, sugar and money… plus a mysterious miniaturist who begins to send startingly realistic miniatures, that Nella soon suspects of being vehicles for predictions… Nella first contacts the artisan to furnish the little replica of his house her brooding, puzzling husband has gifted her with. But unrequested models keep arriving, intriguing and unnerving. The novel is in fact inspired by a real Petronella Oortman’s doll’s house, which can be admired at the Rijksmuseum. I won’t give away more of the plot, you may want to unveil its layers by yourself.

“Who will see this piece of work, who will be able to sit on those chairs, or eat the waxen food? She has no friends, no family in this city to come and exclaim at it — it is a monument to her powerlessness, her arrested womanhood.”

Revelations abound in the novels. Secrets, laced with potential dangers are unveiled. But somehow there is never complete resolution, and no clear answers to some burning questions. People have complained about these loose ends, but does it really matter? These inexplicable events left for the reader to decipher, the irruption of the supernatural in a prosaic world, the doubt, the elusive nature of the truth, these are hallmarks of a whole literary genre after all, the so called “fantastique”. What are the miniaturist’s powers? Is she just an observant woman? The things Nella sees in her miniatures, are they really there? What are Johannes motivations? What is happening in Agnes’ heart and mind? We don’t know, or barely, and that’s fine. The doubt is unsettling but delightful.

“She spins my life, she thinks. And I cannot see the consequences.”

People have also criticised the weak characterisation and the underdevelopment of some protagonists. Marin is elusive yes, hypocrite too, and difficult to decipher. Nella is paradoxal, at turns a shy little girl and an determined woman, yearning for the love of a man she barely knows. She is full of contradictions but that seems natural. She is forced to grow so fast, amidst exceptional, distressing situations, trapped in a golden cage, the rusty bars of which are falling apart. And then there is trustworthy Otto, victim of the prejudices of his times; bold Cornelia and careless Johannes.
And all these characters have their secrets. Secret loves, secret fears. And they are all the more fascinating for that. They are like rough outlines, foggy turmoils of emotions and questions. And somehow, it did not prevent me from caring. Maybe because they fit so well in the atmosphere of this dark play.

“The night darkens, the stars unfriendly, the cold a knife upon her neck — but Nella waits, until she can no longer tell the difference between Johannes and the darkness that carries him away.”

They also say the plot is meandering. It did not feel that way to me. I would not have cared anyway. I was totally engrossed. The universe is dark, the descriptions lush. Reading this novel was a rich sensory experience. The sounds, tastes and smells, all rendered in a very fine and delicate prose.

“Nella feels the shaving melt into her mouth, sweet and granular, vanished in a moment. It leaves a sheen of vanilla behind, and tacks her tongue onto her palate.”

The book reminded me of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, released more recently. The historical setting upset by the slightly supernatural, the eerie, the mysterious and melancholic. Both novels also explore the place of women in times and places that deny them any agency. It also brought back memories of The Night Circus. They are very different in their themes, but their dark and shifty universes produce similar sensations. I also appreciated the delicacy of the language. Some of the similes employed are sometimes a bit far-fetched, but overall the flowery language is well handled.

The novel is dusky and atmospheric, playing a succession of fleeting scenes before the reader’s eyes. Imminent threats hang in the air. The dialogues are unsettling, barely breathed out before their true meaning vanish in the mist. The characters always seem to be probing deeper truths, poignant revelations buried under the soil of their lives, their universe constantly on the verge of collapsing. They are essences, outlines blearily drawn, yet ever so present. I was here for all of it. Totally immersed, carried away by the prose, entranced by the scents, shivering.

No really, I don’t see where I could or should fault this one.

“Falling to silence, they entwine their hands, as if the touch of flesh will keep away the dawn.”

The Miniaturist, Picador, 448 pages


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