Jessie Burton had a good year in 2014. I mean, she’s probably still having a good time, sure, but to publish your debut and have it shoot to Waterstones’ Book of the Year in the same twelve-month period must be pretty exciting. I got hold of the book after seeing it in pride of place in Waterstones, and what a treat it was; be warned, spoilers ahead.
The novel is set in Amsterdam in the 1600s and follows 18-year-old protagonist Nella Brandt (née Oortman) as she prepares for a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. At the start of the book she moves into his home, but, much to her displeasure, joins his cutting sister Marin and two uninterested servants, Corneila and Otto. Poor Nella’s having a bad time. She doesn’t know her husband ahead of their marriage – it was arranged for his wealth, and he’s much older – and, understandably, she is fairly miserable at first, in a house she feels unwelcome in. Johannes pays her little to no attention, with the exception giving her a grand wedding gift: an enormous miniature (or dollhouse) of their house. Nella comforts herself by ordering figurines and furniture from a miniaturist, who, as you may have worked out already, turns out to be pretty important.
As Nella makes her first order she soon discovers that the creations that arrive are not only spookily accurate – supernaturally so – but also, in some cases, prophetic. From time to time she sees a blonde woman watching her before disappearing into crowds, or often thin air, and Nella comes to the conclusion that this must be the miniaturist, with an insight on Nella’s life that is entirely unprecedented.
What holds the novel together is the writing. It’s beautiful and original, with Burton creating imagery in an effortless way. The novel is full of surprises and keeps you on your toes, though the biggest twist is rather obvious from the get-go: Johannes, despite being a fairly kind and affectionate man, won’t touch his arranged wife or consummate their marriage, which is pretty mystifying for Nella – until she walks in on him with another man. With sodomy being illegal and punishable by death at the time, she has to conceal his secret along with the others in the household, three people she warms to in spite of the setbacks they endure (something the miniaturist is constantly hinting at, if not directly causing).
A lot of the book circulates around the miniaturist; she herself is spooky, gothic and downright compelling – at least at first. Unfortunately, the pay off is poor. I had expected her to be paranormal or perhaps non-existent, but her backstory is simple and, in a word, underwhelming. I would also have liked to have seen more of her as a prophetess. There’s an eerie section of the book where a figurine of Johannes’ spurned male lover is cast out of the window and Nella retrieves it, preceding a dramatic showdown where the man himself breaks into their home and torments them. I wanted this to be a taste of what was to come; I wanted to see more of the figurines as voodoo dolls, not just bits of wood to spook Nella.
The small, well-developed cast of characters and swift plot meant I was guaranteed a pleasurable read whenever I picked it up. Still, I was disappointed it didn’t develop into something more. There was a lot of untapped potential there, but perhaps it could have easily turned into something cheesy and altogether predictable had Burton gone down that route. I’ve noticed there are a few criticisms of the novel that say Nella grew in maturity a little too easily and become much more clever (and business-savvy) than her situation would rightly allow. I can’t speak for the business side, but I didn’t find her rapid maturity unrealistic. Nella is chucked in at the deep as soon as the book opens, and that kind of thing can make or break a person. I relate to that, so while Nella’s quick ascension from miserable young bride to head of the household (protecting the family’s political and financial interests) is not as believable as it might have been, it’s not the worst flaw I’ve spotted in a novel.
A small treat for me: my sister invited me to a talk in London where two authors, two publishers and an agent were speaking about the fiction industry on the whole – with Burton on the panel. It was similar to a Hay talk, in that the authors spoke about the creations of their books respectively and how they found the overall experience. It was pretty special to greet Burton during the drinks and nibbles after the talk and to tell her how much I liked the book – plus, her advice was inspiring. Give it a few years and I hope to be on a panel like that – hopefully not there to discuss the worst ever plummet in book sales.
Goodreads review: four stars. One knocked off the full five for the way it rapidly fizzled out, but otherwise, a pretty perfect book.
[Coming next: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan]