Reviewed by Susan Osborne
This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time. I first noticed it at the centre of a little Twitter storm early this year in which several people whose opinion I trust were becoming very excited, then I noticed that not only was it set in Amsterdam, one of my favourite cities, but that Jessie Burton had taken for her inspiration the ‘cabinet houses’ that had intrigued me in the Rijksmuseum. Cabinet houses are replicas of the wealthy merchants’ homes which line the canals, beautifully decorated and furnished in miniature. Petronella Oortman’s is a particularly fine example and it’s Nella’s story that Burton tells in The Miniaturist.
In November 1686, fresh from the country town of Assendelft, Nella knocks on the door of her new husband’s house. She hasn’t seen him since they were married a month ago. He’s a merchant, a wealthy businessman who divides his time between the stock exchange, the Dutch East India Company and searching out exotic goods far away from Amsterdam. Nella’s reception is distinctly chilly: her husband is absent, her sister-in-law taciturn and the maid sulky, only the black manservant – the like of which she’s never seen before – seems polite. Perhaps this is the way things are done in Amsterdam but as the week wears on there’s still no sign of Johannes, Marin continues to behave as if she’s the mistress of the house rather than Nella and Cornelia becomes cheekier. Nella begins to question the nature of this strange household of which she is nominally in charge. When, eventually, Johannes turns up, his gentle fondness for her fails to materialise into anything else and she continues to sleep alone. She needs an occupation which comes in the form of a present from Johannes: the cabinet house, beautifully crafted but in need of furnishing. When she commissions a miniaturist she finds the packages that are sent contain unasked for extras, dolls which mirror the inhabitants of the Herengracht house a little too exactly. As Nella becomes more confident, she begins to understand that there are many layers to the Brandt household just as there are many layers to Amsterdam. I’m not going to tell you much more than that – much of the delight and skill of this impressive, immensely enjoyable novel is the way in which Nella’s questioning peels back those layers and the many surprises – and shocks – she reveals.
This is a gorgeous jewel box of a novel packed with vivid descriptions that summon up seventeenth-century Amsterdam where ‘how you dress is what you are’ although a very plain dress many well be lined in velvet and sable, hidden well away from public gaze. It’s a city where women may walk the streets at liberty but their desire to see the world is confined to map-lined rooms. Burton is particularly adept at characterisation – there are no sinners and saints amongst her main protagonists, each is complex, many-faceted and often surprising. Nella’s transformation from naïve young country girl with visions of a glittering marriage to a resourceful, courageous woman capable of facing even the most grueling of ordeals is a triumph. The dialogue is often snappy and the device of the mysterious miniaturist who seems to know far more that she should keeps you guessing. It’s a love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface – altogether a very fine book, indeed and one of the best I’ve read this year.
If you’ve found your appetite whetted for more history of this fascinating city I’d recommend Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, bought on holiday there. It’s a very readable account which although chronological relates the city’s history back to the present day. I thought of it often while reading The Miniaturist.
Susan Osborne blogs at A Life in Books (www.alifeinbooks.co.uk) Never, ever leave home without a book
Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist, (Picador: London, 2014) 9781447250890 400 pages Hardback.