In the Autumn of 1686, 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives on the doorstep of a merchant’s house in Amsterdam. She is his wife. But no courtship took place, there was no marriage to speak of, no intimacy or celebration, instead just a contract. But here Nella is, with nothing but her pet bird to remind her of her home and family. But when the door opens, her groom, Johannes Brandt, is absent, taken away by work, and in his place is his sister Marin, an imposing, unfriendly husbandless woman, and two peculiar servants, Cornelia and Otto. Nella is given Marin’s own room, a grand room in a grand house, decorated in paintings that depict hunted game in all its gore. With her bird banished to the kitchens, Nella is as alone as she has even been, alone with the sound of voices and footsteps that she hears making their way around the dark house by night.
When Johannes finally appears he is kind but distant. But he gives her a magnificent wedding gift – a beautiful miniature replica of their house with money to furnish it. Nella finds a sole miniaturist listed in a book of Amsterdam traders, someone excluded from the city’s rigid ruling system of guilds. But when Nella gets in touch – by note, the miniaturist remains elusive – she is astounded to have brought to her house the most exquisite miniatures, furniture and dolls, perfect in every way, and yet terrifyingly true to her life, their life in this house. They seem to hint at the strange relationships within the house and suggest futures that may be about to happen. Nina wants to resist but she is as unable to escape the miniaturist as she is the pull of the house.
The Miniaturist is an astonishing novel. It is beautiful and poetic, haunting and worrying. Jessie Burton was inspired when she wrote this novel and it fills the pages, enriches the prose and brings to breathtaking life the people of this house in Amsterdam. Nella is not only a marvel, she is also our eyes and ears. She tells her story to us in the present tense. She is struggling to find herself in this large house with shadows, with a husband who doesn’t seem to want her and with Marin whose own room, once Nella gets a glimpse, is overflowing with mysteries, all hidden by her bedroom door just as her black, respectable garb is rumoured to hide red petticoats and furs. The servants seem overly familiar to their masters but as time passes and Nella grows into her situation she begins to depend on the kindness of Cornelia which hard to win once won is resolute.
Johannes and Marin are to me, though, the most fascinating people of the novel, which is certainly saying something as this is a novel overflowing with character. We learn to know these strangers as Nella does and there are some enormous shocks in store for us all. The fact that they are mirrored or even predicted by the beautiful miniatures delivered to the house just adds to the feeling of unease and creepiness. The winter cold and ice outside only increases the sense that this house is a sinister island cut off from the laws of nature and man.
The Miniaturist is enlivened by the strong presence of another character – the city of Amsterdam itself. We see its canals, shopping districts and rough areas. This is a city and society ruled by money and built on risk. Priests play second fiddle to merchants. The merchants make the laws and decide punishments. And there are signs throughout of the cruelty of this system. Crimes against God are equated with crimes against the system and both are dealt with by the harshest means. These are the streets, dinner parties, shops and offices that Nella moves through and which Marin and Cornelia also have to make their way through. Women are secondary and yet it is the women who have to be the strongest. As time goes by, Nella is slowly allowed to understand Marin’s own story and the relationship between the two becomes something so special within the novel. It’s never going to be easy. As for Johannes, the ultimate collector, it’s hard not to care for him. I love this in The Miniaturist – nothing is black and white, everything is shades of the brightest colours.
The Miniaturist is such a moving, emotionally rewarding read. The dolls house, which really does exist, is the perfect means to convey the artifice of 17th-century Amsterdam society while highlighting how exquisite elements of it are. From delicate and hesitant beginnings, as our young bride arrives in a stranger’s house, the novel grows with the confidence that Nella assumes as she learns her place in her new home. I felt so comfortable with these characters, so close to their experiences, and it was awful to leave them at the close of the book. This is a period of history (and place) that I know little about. Jessie Burton ensured that this didn’t matter a jot. The Miniaturist is a debut novel – that is extraordinary. Without any hesitation, The Miniaturist is one of my favourite novels of the year. It is receiving accolades almost by the week – they are thoroughly deserved.