I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Miniaturist. Now I’ve read it, I’m still not quite sure what I got. It’s part gothic horror, part historical novel, part feminist treatise and all fragile beauty. Every page of the Miniaturist shimmers, its sparkling prose gently evoking seventeenth century Amsterdam. It’s a period and setting I know little about, and was fascinated by the male dominated society ruled equally by the tyranny of a puritanical God and the slavish pursuit of the Guilder. I’m used to seeing Amsterdam as the banner of permissive society, yet in the seventeenth century, oppression was its watchword. Even the baking of gingerbread men was banned to prevent idolatry.
The novel opens (more or less) with Nella Oortman arriving on the doorstep of her husband’s house. Married in haste in the countryside, she has travelled alone to Amsterdam to take up residence in her marital home. Things don’t start well. Eighteen year old Nella sees little of her husband and is instead treated to the hostile disdain of her shrewish sister-in-law, Marin. The house is also occupied by two servants. Cornelia, a maid and orphan, bold and contemptuous, and Otto, a black man, not a slave, yet not free; purchased by Nella’s husband in Suriname. The husband, Johannes, is older; a wealthy business man, almost above the law. He has little time for Nella, and far from home, she feels isolated and alone. Johannes’s one gesture to his wife is to buy her an expensive replica of the house in which they live. Bored, with little to do, Nella sets about furnishing her new present. And that’s how she discovers the miniaturist.
The novel then switches into gothic horror mode. The miniaturist seems to have deep knowledge of Nella’s home, yet Nella knows nothing about the model builder other than that she is a woman. The miniaturist seems to be able to preternaturally predict events that are yet to happen, making Nella paranoid she is being watched and observed. Things start to go wrong, tensions in the house gradually simmer towards boiling point and we are left to wonder if the miniaturist is predicting or causing the family’s problems.
All this time, secrets come tumbling from every wall. Nella is faced with problem after problem but she gains strength through every setback, gradually growing into the role as woman of the house. Her relationships with the other members of the house ebb and flow. Alliances are forged, broken and remade and with each pitfall Nella becomes stronger. The story plays out across the beautifully described back-drop of Amsterdam, a city of commerce and religious diffidence, ruled over by the powerful and feared Burgomeisters.
Amsterdam may be a city ruled by men, but The Miniaturist is centred around its women. There are five at the heart of the plot, and they are women out of time; progressive and independent. Questions of equality in marriage and in business permeate the story. The book may be set in the seventeenth century, but many of its attitudes survive today. The women here fight battles that should have been left behind centuries ago, but sadly still go on. Much of the novel is devoted to the idea of forging your own path, something women of the time were almost never able to do. Nearly every character is impeded by the social mores of the time. Nobody can truly be themselves.
The book also asks interesting questions about whether we are defined by our expectations. Much mileage is gained in the plot by having people make assumptions about others. The whole question about whether the miniaturist is clairvoyant boils down to whether humans see what they want to see, rather than what is there. Is the miniaturist a wielder of magic or simply a closer observer of human nature? We all telegraph our aspirations and attitudes on to others, and Burton illustrates this with mesmerising effect.
My initial reaction to reading the Miniaturist was one of slight disappointment, mainly because the novel didn’t go where I expected it to. Instead Burton constructed an altogether more subtle tale than the macabre gothic horror I’d anticipated. She has a created a story that lingers in the mind. One of fractured connections and shattered dreams. The Miniaturist is a very interesting début, that should appeal to many readers. With memorable characters and evocative settings, it is a book that demands you keep reading. If you’re looking something fresh, without being too out there, The Miniaturist should appeal, no matter what your usual fare.