The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

30th Jul 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
With her debut novel, The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton follows in the footsteps of Sarah Waters and Tracy Chevalier, filling her seventeenth-century Amsterdam canvas with rich period detail and a suspenseful plot.

In October 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman leaves her family home in the Dutch countryside to join her new husband, Johannes Brandt, at his home in Amsterdam.

Johannes is a spice merchant for the Dutch East India Company; most recently, he has acquired a vast stockpile of sugar that he needs to shift at once.

When Nella arrives, though, Johannes is not there to greet her. Instead, she meets the house’s other inhabitants: her prickly sister-in-law, Marin, orphan maidservant Cornelia, and African manservant Otto.

Intimidated by the opulence of her surroundings and eager to begin life as a wife, Nella impatiently awaits Johannes’ return.

The Miniaturist is flawlessly researched; like a Vermeer painting, it is rich in detail but subtle in construction.In some ways, Nella will be kept waiting forever: when her husband, 20 years her senior, does come back, he never gives the emotional and physical attention she craves; his affections are engaged elsewhere.

“True love was a flower in the gut, its petals unfurling inside out,” Nella thinks. Will she ever know this blooming sensation?

If there is a consolation prize to be had, however, it is Johannes’ spectacular wedding gift: a gilt cabinet presenting their house in miniature. Nella finds a local miniaturist – a Norwegian woman who will fill the cabinet with furniture and figures – but becomes troubled when her creations display an uncannily intimate knowledge of the household.

“Someone has peered into Nella’s life and thrown her off centre.” The appearance of a crib and a bloody mark on one figure’s head: “are these pieces echoes or presages – or, quite simply, a lucky guess?”

With these unsettling prophecies on one hand, and the oppressive voices of the Catholic burgomasters (who ban human images) on the other, Nella struggles to find her place. Meanwhile, there is a warehouse packed with mouldering sugar – a mirror image of the Brandt household’s rapid decay.

Readers will find it impossible to forget that the novel opened with a funeral in January 1687, a date the present-tense action approaches with alarming speed. But whose funeral, and how did things go downhill so quickly?

The Miniaturist is flawlessly researched; like a Vermeer painting, it is rich in detail but subtle in construction. (Jessie Burton’s website describes her research process.)

The metaphors feel fresh and appropriate, as in “Both his eyes have been punched, and the skin around them is the colour of a dying tulip. His hair is wild like bleached seaweed.”

However, the plot does rather tip over into melodrama, with a trial and an unexpected pregnancy taking up much of the second half. The magical realist element, so significant to start with, is never fully explored, such that the miniaturist herself – ostensibly the most important presence, given the title – remains a shadowy figure.

Moreover, the atmosphere of The Miniaturist is somewhat claustrophobic: it takes place over just three months and never strays far from the same few Amsterdam locations.

Had Burton granted Nella a trip back to the countryside to visit her family, or to Venice to accompany Johannes on a sales mission, the novel might have opened outward in a more satisfying way.

All the same, this is a memorable picture of women’s place in a repressive society. Is it true, as one of the miniaturist’s notes reads, that “Every woman is the architect of her own fortune”? Nella and Marin, especially, will test that statement to its limits.

The Miniaturist is not a perfect novel, but it speaks of great talent and potential. Jessie Burton is one to watch.