Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“Adrift, she feels shipwrecked between the idea of her marriage and its actual state, and the cabinet, beautiful and useless, is a horrible reminder of it all.”
Eighteen-year-old Petronella Oortman has recently been married to Johannes Brandt, a Dutch East India Company merchant twice her age. When she arrives in Amsterdam in the winter of 1686, she finds that she has joined a most unusual household, managed by Brandt’s spinster sister, Marin, and attended by an adopted orphan maid, and a freed African slave. As a wedding gift from her new husband, Nella receives an ornately carved cabinet house, a miniature model of her new home. With her husband often traveling for his work, Nella is left alone in this unusual household, and to pass the time she commissions a miniaturist to make some pieces for her cabinet house. But the artist far exceeds her requests, sending pieces that eerily echo the goings on in the Brandt household, and predicting troubling turns of events that threaten to expose the Brandts’ secrets to the prying eyes of Amsterdam society.
What comes across most vividly in The Miniaturist is the setting in seventeenth century Amsterdam, from the house on the Herengracht, to the Bourse, to the docks and warehouses of the Dutch East India Company. Debut novelist Jessie Burton captures both the atmosphere of the city, and the repressive air of the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, Burton visited the city in 2009 and the miniature house is a real artefact that can be found in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, while the protagonist’s name is borrowed from that house’s original owner. Burton’s prose is evocative, if occasionally overwrought, as when Nella is “weakened by the magnificence of Marin’s fury.” Despite the occasional overdone passage, the style is generally strong, although the choice of third person present tense narration was sometimes distracting.
While the historical detail of the setting was meticulous, Burton did not apply the same philosophy to her characters. Marin and Nella are posed as feminists in a manner that strengthens their characters, but weakens the historical veracity of The Miniaturist. The protagonist and her friends all had very modern attitudes towards a variety of issues that would not have been generally accepted in seventeenth century Amsterdam. One such discrepancy might pass under the radar, but three is asking the reader to suspend their knowledge of history a bit too much. As these events come to the fore, the mystery of the miniaturist falls into the background, never to be picked back up. The pace of the plot increases, but the thread of the story is lost.
More historical fiction with an element of fantasy:
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern