Review: Jessie Burton - "The Miniaturist"
Let's talk about historical settings and atmosphere and how they combine beautifully in this book.
“Growing older, does not seem to make you more certain. It simply presents you with more reasons for doubt.”
I picked up "The Miniaturist" ages ago. The cover looked intriguing to me, the text on the back of the book also sounded promising. I think it was at an airport in Britain, probably on my way back from Bristol. As always, I only travelled with hand luggage. As always, I had no actual space for yet another book. As always, I still bought it and just carried it in my hand when I got onto the plane.
Jessie Burton's novel is neither set in a city that I know well (even though the Netherlands are next door, I have not yet been to Amsterdam) not in an era that I am well acquainted with. For some reason, my historical knowledge comes in patches and the end of the 17th century is just one of these white areas on the map for me. Did I learn new things? I definitely did. Burton paints a picture of the Dutch society at the time which was hugely influenced by the strong religious beliefs that reigned. The Netherlands were already protestant when Elizabeth I. reigned (a time which I actually know things about). Amsterdam was a flourishing trading post already and well, here's the problem, because extreme piety, the belief that you should pray a lot and indulge little doesn't go well with being a good trader, making money and spending it.
In front of this backdrop, we meet a young woman, Petronella (or Nella). She grew up far away from the hustle and bustle of the big city but when Johannes came her way, she agreed to marry the much older man. It was a quick affair and he had to set off right after they had said their vows, so now she has travelled all the way to Amsterdam in order to get to know him properly and become lady of the house.
The household though is managed by Johannes's sister Marin who seems anything but friendly in the beginning and who also represents the religious side of Amsterdam society. There are also two servants. The maid becomes Nella's friend and confidante soon, while the manservant, Otto, draws a lot of gazes in the streets as he's black and people see him as not much more than an animal.
Johannes gives Nelly a doll's house, beautifully carved and intricately made, for her birthday. When she finds a miniaturist in the historical version of the yellow pages, she orders a few pieces... but she gets more than she bargained for.
As Nella learns about the secrets of the house and its inhabitants - it seems like nobody is just who they seem, she slowly becomes aware of her own strength and capabilities.
Did I like it? Oh yes, I did. But why? Well, firstly, the way that Burton describes the scenery and the characters is enchanting and just keeps you wanting more. While the story is told in a rather slow pace, it never gets boring. The atmosphere is great. You feel drawn into the story without knowing why. One thing that was surprising for me personally was that I enjoyed it so much even though it is told in the present tense, something that usually feels forced to me and doesn't make me feel more "there" but often widens the distance for me. In this case, it worked. It worked so well.
Secondly, the characters are just extremely likeable, even Marin, whom I really had no intention to like in the beginning, became a loveable creature in the end. They are all flawed in their own way, all difficult, but so, so relateable. And then there's Nella, our protagonist, who is allowed to grow into herself more with every page. I guess "The Miniaturist" is what you'd label "women's fiction" (see my last article as to why I have issues with that terminology) but I feel this is a novel that was written for everyone who enjoys a really well-written book and likes to discover atmospheric settings and deep, flawed characters and the relationships between people in all their forms and shapes. It's definitely not for those who want a light hearted distraction nor for those who are looking for a block buster movie in book-shape (for those who are looking for that, I have a treat coming up soon), but if you like classics like Jane Austen's works or the Bronte's stories or historical fiction like the Poldark novels which are more focussed on atmosphere than action, you will enjoy this book immensely!
'So why just three books our of four on your rating scale?' you ask. Well, the answer is simple: I didn't like the ending. It left me with a massive question mark over my head. I still don't know what to make of it and whether a re-read or watching the series (yes, there seems to be a series) might help me to see this clearer. If it does, I will go back, edit this review and turn the three into four books immediately.