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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman knocks at the door of a grand house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. She has come from the country to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt, but instead she is met by his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Only later does Johannes appear and present her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in unexpected ways . . .

Nella is at first mystified by the closed world of the Brandt household, but as she uncovers its secrets she realizes the escalating dangers that await them all. Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall?

Beautiful, intoxicating and filled with heart-pounding suspense, Jessie Burton’s magnificent debut novel The Miniaturist is a story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.
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The Miniaturist was a huge break-out book in 2014, a historical fiction novel by Jessie Burton that became Waterstones’ Book of the Year, that was a bestseller, and that was a debut novel that won her the National Book Award’s New Writer Of The Year. All this considered, I picked it up, to see what all the hype was about it, despite the somewhat offputting blurb.

That blurb is far to staid for this novel. While The Miniaturist is intensely domestic, concerned with a single year in the life of a single household, it is also much broader than that might imply; Burton’s novel is actually far, far more diverse than many science fiction or fantasy novels without any constraints on their casting. The Miniaturist takes on a number of interesting themes in historical fiction including race, gender, sexuality and class, with an enlightened worldview from the narrator but not necessarily the characters; bigotry exists but is not endorsed, racism and colonialist attitudes are painted clearly but are also undermined by the narrative itself. It’s an interesting balance to strike, to portray the attitudes of the period alongside the modern critiques of those attitudes, and Burton attempts it and succeeds much more often than not. It is also, of course, offering a striking contrast to modern views, and highlighting disturbing continuities, especially in racial attitudes – the idea of a person of colour being stared at and gossiped about is, sadly, not alien to the modern Western world any more than it is to the Amsterdam of The Miniaturist.

Of course, Burton’s novel isn’t a manifesto or an examination of 17th century bigotry; rather, it is a narrative, finely crafted and intricate, like the miniatures at the centres of the story. The events of The Miniaturist unfold in the compact space of three months, but draw on events prior to that (although without flashbacks) and have impacts extending far into the future (although only by implication). It’s a relatively low-key, domestic novel; based around commerce, illicit relationships, romantic rivalry and the growing affection between the protagonist, Nella Oortman, and her husband, it makes something greater than the sum of those parts by the way it interweaves them and by the strange (magical? Possibly, possibly not) miniatures that give the book its title, despite playing no part in the plot of the novel. It’s actually an excellent piece of work, as The Miniaturist, by title and marketing, sets the reader up to expect one kind of work, but then gives us another; although important to Nella, the miniaturist and their products are peripheral to the main events of the book, more distraction than contribution. Instead, the plot weaves its several strands together towards an inexorable, beautiful, tragic conclusion, which Burton has hinted at in the start but that subverts the reader’s expectations; the brief prologue haunts the reader throughout the book as a misdirect, but a perfectly honest one, while the miniatures offer only a commentary on that plot.

The Miniaturist is really a character study, very much about Nella’s internal life; if it has one drawback, it is that the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality that it does discuss are all discussed from the viewpoint of a white, heterosexual, noble (if poor) woman, albeit one without exposure to the fundamental Protestantism of Amsterdam at the time. However, Burton gives Nella a very rich inner life, one which drives her to act against her expected role and that bucks the conventions of her society; this is a coming of age narrative for Nella, and a well-written one at that, with her gaining independence and agency across the course of the novel as well as becoming more mature in terms of understanding her society. The Miniaturist is hardly a one-woman show, however; Nella has a sister-in-law, a maid, and a husband who himself has a servant (the person of colour in the narrative). Burton uses each of them to bring something different to the narrative, a different perspective; they each form part of Nella’s journey to maturity as well as, themselves, having a personal trajectory and path to their character and development. The Miniaturist brings its diverse cast together in interesting ways to weave its plot, and a number of minor characters – each complex and, like humans are, contradictory, but only fleeting in their presence – move through the book, but its real core is the central Oortman household.

Burton’s debut, then, is a rather unexpected gem, far more interesting than accolades might make one expect it to be, and far more diverse than most literary offerings; The Miniaturist is a book I would heartily recommend.


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