SHORT & SWEET REVIEW: THE MINIATURIST BY JESSIE BURTON

Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet). Sometimes I have too many books to do a full-length review. At other times, like now, tennis elbow and other family issues mean I have to adjust my priorities, and as such, I’m saving longer reviews for Australian authors.

The Miniaturist

It was the cover that first drew me to The Miniaturist, the rich detail of the cabinet house hinting at a tale similar in richness and detail. The subject of a big bidding war at the 2013 London Book Fair, The Miniaturist represented the biggest international debut for publisher Picador in 2014. So does it live up to the advance praise that claims its “fabulously gripping”, “utterly transporting” and a “compelling page turner”?

“There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…” On a cold winter’s 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 realises 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?

Here’s a snippet of the prose:

Nella sits up. Back in Assendelft, there was never a maid like her. This sense of freedom Cornelia has, to do and say things she wouldn’t anywhere else. Cornelia’s voice is brightly conversational; the pleasure of feet-rubbing appears too great to worry what her mistress thinks. Perhaps it is something in this house, Nella thinks, some permissiveness I do not understand.. Life here indeed is topsy-turvy – seeming wrong, but shining a light upon them all. (p111)

The Miniaturist is defined by its languid, sensual prose as much as by its insight to life in seventeenth-century Amsterdam – indeed, the prose serves to counterbalance the strict societal rules that typified the time. It’s a page turner not through an abundance of action, rather through a slow build up of suspense relating to the characters’ motives and actions. Nella can’t quite make out what’s going on when she first arrives, and nor can the reader; the tiny creations of the miniaturist, which appear unbidden, and their unnerving accuracy in detail lead to more questions as the reader joins Nella in trying to understand.

Not only does The Miniaturist give readers a peek into life for the well-to-do in Amsterdam, which is as harsh as it is sumptuous (for some), but it also offers an insight into life as a woman in that time. Nella’s marriage was not her choice and she was bewildered when it didn’t turn out as she’d been led to expect; later, when she has to take matters into her own hands, she is up against a society that is resistant to women having a say, especially in relation to financial matters. This is highlighted particularly in the relationship with Johannes and his sister, in which Johannes keeps his sister at a distance when she pushes him on money matters. Overall, the novel has the touch of someone who has put a great deal of effort into researching and understanding the society being depicted, and this shows by the way readers become immersed in the tale.

Reading about Nella’s cabinet house inspired me to do some of my own research. I didn’t immediately realise Nella Oortman was a real person, or that her cabinet not only real, but on display in the Rijksmuseum.  

I really enjoyed this novel and yes, it did transport me into Nella’s world. Intricate and intriguing, The Miniaturist is painted with love, care and the mark of a born storyteller.

Available from good bookstores (RRP $29.99). My copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia.

Bookish treat: Dutch spice biscuits (spekulaas) were dipped into tea … and consumed with delicate relish.