One might say that The Miniaturist starts small but it grows in power and passion with every passing page. Debut novelist (how I envy her!) Jessie Burton, only in her thirties, may have to spend much of the rest of her writing life trying to do better than this first novel. She was triggered off by seeing the “real” miniature house, much more than a mere doll’s house, on a visit to Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum which houses such a miniature which was built for the “real” Petronella Oortman in 1686.
The eighteen-year-old, fictional Petronella (Nella) comes from Assendelft to Amsterdam with her pet parakeet, to begin her arranged marriage to Johannes Brandt, twenty years her senior; in no sense an unusual situation for the time and place. She is prepared to carry out her roles as wife, mother and household manager, only to find that her husband seems in no haste to consummate the marriage and her sister-in-law, Marin, appears to control every aspect of the house and is reluctant to cede her authority. The servants are Cornelia, cook and maid of all work, and Otto, a Negro from Dahomey who is not made to feel very welcome by bigoted Amsterdammers and Calvinist preachers. Brandt has been asked by an old friend to sell his sugar loaves that are his wife’s entire inheritance from her late father’s plantation in Surinam, but seems in no undue haste to do that either.
Johannes makes her a wedding present of a large miniature reproduction of the Brandt house and home on the Herengracht (the Gentlemen’s canal) and Marin hands her the 17th century equivalent of the Yellow Pages, Smit’s List, a register of all craftspeople and businesses in the Dutch Republic’s capital, and in which she finds an entry under M:
MINIATURIST Residing at the sign of the sun, on Kalverstraat. Originally from Bergen. Trained with the great Bruges Clockmaker, Lucas Windelbreke. ALL, AND YET NOTHING
Nella writes to the miniaturist, asking for some few items for her mini-house, such as a lute, with strings, a betrothal cup, filled with confetti, and a box of marzipan. These are delivered very soon with several other items that while appropriate were not asked for. An air of mystery now surrounds the source of these exquisitely made miniatures and their unseen maker, who seems at all times through the book to know more about everything and everyone than can be explained. The scene is now set for the plot to work its way to a gripping conclusion.
Why, you might ask, does Johannes not consummate his marriage? Who is the mysterious English youth, Jack, who delivers packages from the miniaturist and seems very close to Johannes? What is the secret that Marin is concealing? Will the sugar be sold before black spores begin to grow on it in the damp warehouse? All this and more than you ever knew about life in Amsterdam at the end of the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company, (known to the Dutch as the VOC), Calvinist religiosity and general hypocrisy.
Given this blog’s strict no spoiler rule, nothing more can be said about the story other than to say that Jessie Burton manages to make each chapter, sometime each successive page, more gripping than the one before and that the beautifully written and dramatic dénouement should leave you hoping she will soon publish her next book. I would compare her skill to that of established author David Mitchell who wrote about the same period in his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. This is a must read if ever there was.
Burton, Jessie, The Miniaturist; London, Picador, 2014