The second book in my 52 Books Challenge was awarded the prestigious title of Waterstones Book of the Year – The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. I’d been meaning to read it since its release, and my wonderful Dad kindly bought it for me for Christmas (complete with personalised inscription inside, which made me feel a little teary-eyed when I discovered it two weeks later!)
For anyone who doesn’t know, the book focuses on one enigmatic household in Amsterdam, where 18 year old Petronella Oortman finds herself starting a new life as the wife of merchant Johannes Brandt. Her sister-in-law, Marin, rules the household with frugality and a rod of iron, and her new husband is distant and treats her like a child rather than a wife. When Johannes buys her a miniature dolls’ house of their home, Nella is initially insulted. But once she enlists the services of a miniaturist to help her furnish the house, and the pieces she is sent seem to start predicting their future, reflecting events inside and outside the house, Nella comes to rely on the miniaturist as a source of both comfort and fear.
When I was at university, one of periods of history I most enjoyed studying was the early modern age, particularly Early Modern England. So I was particularly interested to read about life on the continent in this same time. Amsterdam was a bustling trade port full of merchants and ships and exotic goods from foreign lands making the inhabitants rich. A city of prosperity, always afraid of collapse: there are a lot of references to being sunk below the waves, of being engulfed by the tide. Johannes is involved in the trade of literally anything, but the main focus in the novel is on the trade and sales of sugar. This seems to be a good way to nod to decadence and decay, and rot beneath the surface of beauty.
There was a sense throughout the beginning of the book of waiting for something to happen, of disaster hiding in the shadows just out of sight. This is only emphasised by the constant references to secrets and spies, and the sense that, wherever you go, whether in the city or the house, someone is watching and listening.
The imagery is all very much linked to sensation and temperature. Everything is cold, icy, damp and chilled. From the blue tinging on the edge of the pages in my copy to the description of the ice across the canal, you can feel the chill seeping through the pages and into you. The themes of female empowerment, liberty, justice and injustice are also inescapably woven into the coldness of the book, and this chill in turn seems to affect the relationships of the various characters.
It takes a while to warm to the characters. Nella seems very childlike for a large part of the book, and it is only gradually that she undergoes a transformation and finds her strength. Marin is harsh and prickly, difficult to warm to. Johannes is also frustratingly mysterious, hidden away at the docks or on the high seas. Even the servants, Cornelia and Otto, who seem the most relatable to Nella, are cloistered in their own life separate to hers. It took a while for me to really like any of them, but by the end of the book I found myself with a fierce loyalty to them all. Their house, although strange and cold to Nella, is in fact a sanctuary, a place where this set of misfits can actually be free to be themselves without fear of judgement or censure. Continual references to locks, keys, and liberty only reinforce this feeling of freedom and entrapment vying for supremacy.
There are some wonderful quotes in this book. In fact, one of them resonated with me:
“We don’t like traitors – Marin’s words come back to her, a reminder of the strange unity of these people to whom Nella half-belongs, waiting to see where her loyalty lies.”
Strangely, this actually reminded me of work, and the prospect of fitting in to a new team in a new place. I’ve found this same feeling to be true at times. Not that I’ve ever betrayed anyone, but more the sense of trying to fit in to a group who are already intensely loyal to each other, where you are the new person who needs to prove themselves to gain acceptance.
The Miniaturist is a wonderful book. Wonderfully written, gripping, tragic, hopeful – it takes you on a rollercoaster and will leave you stunned at the end. I can’t tell you too much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it for you, but it is one of those books that stays with you long after you turn the final page, and I would strongly urge you to read it. Take it from someone who was very late to the party on this – it’s well worth it! I will leave you with a final one of my favourite, poignant, quotes:
Growing older, Nella realises, does not seem to make you more certain. It simply presents you with more reasons for doubt.
Have you read The Miniaturist? What did you think of it?