Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical
Set in 1686 The Miniaturist by debut author Jessie Burton is the spellbinding story of an eighteen-year-old girl married off to an older merchant who lives in Amsterdam. She arrives on his doorstep with no idea of what marriage entails or the fact that she has been procured to enhance his reputation, for her family is poor but with a pedigree. Little does she know that her husband is not what he seems and will never be a real husband to her. He is not even there to greet her, leaving her on her own to meet his sister, Marin, and their household servants, Cornelia and Otto. So begins, Petronella’s introduction to her new life. When Johannes does finally appear he is pleased but distant and his only acknowledgement of her as his wife is the gift of a marvelous miniature of their house, complete down to the identical wallpaper and drapes. It lacks only furniture and, in finding a craftsman to carve replicas for her, Nella embarks on a strange and complicated journey that changes her life.
The Miniaturist follows Nella’s lonely days in trying to adapt to a household devoid of light and her husband’s presence. She manages to find a carver in the trade paper and engages his services sight unseen. When she receives the items she ordered not only are they exact and exquisite renderings of the belongings in the house, they also include the people and cryptic notes. Given that this person has never been in the house or met any of them Nella’s interest is piqued. When she goes to the address listed no one answers the door but she learns it is a woman living there. Nella has seen a woman following her but has never managed to speak to her. When the carvings start to prophecy what is happening in the house, Nella believes she must talk to this mysterious carver, must understand what is this person’s place in her life. How can she know what will happen to them before it does?
The story presented seems like Nella’s, but it isn’t Nella’s to tell. She spins my life, she thinks, and I cannot see the consequences.
Much like the house that is the centerpiece of this story The Miniaturist is a magical, intricate marvel of perfection. Burton channels Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca with the depiction of a young, naïve girl thrust into a dark and isolated atmosphere populated with secrets, but goes far beyond Rebecca’s reach with luxurious prose that immerses the reader in the cold, damp of Amsterdam, the varied textures, colors and smells of Johannes’ warehouse, the superficial trappings of wealth and the darkness that fills her husband’s richly appointed house. Nella tries to make friends with her new family but Marin’s disdain and secret life are impenetrable. Even when she does finally respond in kind with her own cutting words it doesn’t make her feel better.
Seeing her like this should make me feel powerful, Nella thinks as Marin’s sobs flood her ears—yet even now she eludes me. Like her idea of love, Marin is best witnessed in the chase—for caught like this, she is even more ungraspable.
The secrets that multiply, the ever shifting shadows of change, are what make The Miniaturist a book that enchants from beginning to end. This is a story for a reader to love, the kind that brings on sadness when it ends because we can’t bear to leave the characters and want only to know what happens next. Burton heightens this feeling in the novel in that even after the last sentence there are still mysteries unsolved.