Book Review: The Miniaturist

Monday 24 November 2014 by

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton, Book, PicadorThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Published by Picador

There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…

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?

~*~

Thankfully, The Miniaturist turned out to be a bit more cheerful than my last few reads, though bright and breezy it is not.

Nella Oortman is sent to Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of a wealthy trader. But all is not as it seems in the Brandt household, and Nella soon finds herself embroiled in darker and darker woes. But more than that, there is eeriness to the story, with a mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella unnervingly accurate gifts, often predicting or suggesting nightmares and events to come.

This is another book on the Waterstones Book of the Year shortlist that has been lauded before for its outstanding storytelling. And it’s easy to see why. From the beautiful, beautiful design (Picador, you have outdone yourself) to the absolutely gripping tale, The Miniaturist is a well-deserved favourite.

I was transfixed by the story. There was something even more intriguing about it, knowing that these were real people in history. But what I enjoyed the most was the slightly supernatural twist to it. No, I’m not talking about ghosts and monsters; in fact, I’m not talking about anything concretely supernatural at all. The mystery of the miniaturist and the spooky gifts is never entirely explained, casting an unnatural edge over the rest of the story. We learn fractions of it, but the miniaturist remains a secret. And I love that it is left unresolved in the end, leaving the miniaturist to appear again (one hopes).

Nella is fantastic protagonist; she sees and hears enough to carry you forward, but has an endearing vulnerability and innocence that adds that personal touch to the story. I’ll be honest and say that I saw a lot of it coming long before Nella did, and perhaps that took away some of the enjoyment of the Grand Reveals when they came, but the twists were flawless in their plausibility. I never for a moment got distracted by the turns of phrase and quirks of writing – instead, I was totally absorbed. It’s a great sign of a writer’s ability when you don’t even notice that you’re being told a story. And there was nothing too try-hard about the Grand Reveals; Burton doesn’t go out to shock you, but to draw you in further. She creates a claustrophobic atmosphere with her writing, building the tension as she goes, to bring it to a dramatic crescendo.

It’s a joy to discover a character that grows with the story in a believable way, and Burton has achieved this rare gem with her first novel and there is a thrill of anticipation knowing that there will be more to come from this writer. Unfortunately, I can’t talk too much about the book itself, because I really will give it away (there are twists and turns from the start). An entertaining read, with breathtaking tension, this is a debut novel with punch. I must have been one of the last people to read it (it really is that popular) and I’m actually impressed that I didn’t already know some of the plot by accident.

As a literary novel, this borders on the thriller, with a psychological aspect that is totally spellbinding. The only shame I found was that, despite is 400+ pages, there were certain characters left relatively unexplored. They are roughly sketched and left to your own imagination, which can sometimes leave you pondering them rather than the main plotline. I would have liked an extra couple of hundred pages to find out about Agnes and Otto and Cornelia and follow them for a while; when they appeared they seemed so intriguing, but then they would exit stage left and that would be all you would get from them… what was Agnes’ problem towards the end of the book? Was Cornelia actually in love with Otto? And what happened to Otto? … You find yourself reaching for the next page and finding nothing.

But in the end, this was a nice change to read something that wasn’t so harrowing but was still a layered story. I really fell for Nella, and to an extent Marin, and wanted to spend longer with them than the book gave me. They are a nice blend of soft and tough, innocent and jaded, hopeful and pessimistic, both becoming the perfect mirror to the other. Nella really does feel like a wide-eyed eighteen year old, who is discovering all too quickly that the grown-up arena of marriage and intrigue is sometimes too much to take on. Marin really does feel like the world-weary sister, who tries so hard in public that it is only in private that she can be herself.

The Miniaturist is about its characters first and foremost, and Burton is fairly phenomenal writer when it comes to building people (and Amsterdam is pretty brilliantly realised too) which makes it a joy to read. This is a powerful first novel, that promises so much, delivers so much, and Burton is here to stay. Don’t be too surprised to see her next few books gracing the bestsellers and awards lists for years to come… And is it too much to ask for a sequel!?

“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”

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  1. And the Winner is… #WBOTY14 | House of Blog - […] You can read my full review of The Miniaturist here […]

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