Book Review – The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
Title – The Miniaturist
Genre – Literary Fiction
Author – Jessie Burton
First published – 2014
Edition reviewed – 2017, by Picador
Enjoyment rating – 6/10
There are no spoilers in this review
Petronella (Nella) Brandt is a country girl, the newly-wed bride of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt of Amsterdam. She arrives in Amsterdam to join a household of four people; her husband, Johannes; his sister, Marin; his man servant, Otto; and his sister’s maid servant, Cornelia. She has to learn how to fit in with the family, each of whom has secrets, in a city whose sole yardstick of value is wealth.
Or is it? Johannes gives Nella a realistic model of her new house as a wedding present. Nella wants model people to occupy it and contacts a miniaturist to make them. When they arrive, they are uncannily accurate and detailed. Furthermore, they seem to reflect events that are happening in the full-size house.
The sins of the present begin to reveal the secrets of the past, not just to the household but to men of power and influence, men who have no reason for covering them up. Slowly a storm of malice raises a surge that threatens to sweep away the household. How much will Nella be able to preserve?
Despite its title, the book is not really about the model house, the seemingly prophetic dolls and the woman who makes them – the miniaturist. These are plot devices to keep you turning pages – which they do successfully. They are also part of an extended metaphor about the powerlessness of the inhabitants of the full-size house to be able to shape their own destiny. The miniaturist herself, we discover, is trying to build a professional life in a world where a woman is simply not allowed to do that.
And this is the heart of the novel. It is the struggle by each of the women, Nella, Marin, Cornelia and the miniaturist, to achieve self-realisation in a world where a woman’s only value in society is as a wife and mother.
I don’t think the novel fully delivers on this. It’s a feeling rather than analysis, but the characters’ motivations seem rather sketchy, and perhaps even unlikely. This hinders rather than prevents the development of the reader’s sympathy for the characters, and certainly I felt enough for them that the narrative hooks kept me reading.
Finally, the quality of the writing. Brilliant. Beautiful. Compelling. I’m not going to reveal the climax of the novel, but it’s clearly been constructed with intense care and the effect is dazzling.