Book review: The Miniaturist - bygone era comes to life in assured debut
by Jessie Burton
Much was expected of 32-year-old Jessie Burton's debut novel, which landed her a "six-figure" deal from Picador and was Waterstones' book of the year. It's certainly delivered in terms of sales, but does the book live up to the hype?
At age 18, the aristocratic Petronella Oortman is delivered from sequestered country life to the Herengracht house of her wealthy merchant husband, Johannes Brandt. It is 1686, and Amsterdam is a thriving, prosperous port albeit conservative and puritanical.
The household into which Nella arrives is run by Marin, Johannes' prickly spinster sister. She eats one herring for breakfast, publicly, and scoffs candied walnuts in private. The house is staffed by orphan Cornelia and former slave Otto. Johannes is absent, and when he isn't, he's elusive. Nella can't get near him and their marriage looks set never to be consummated.
To amuse and divert Nella, Johannes presents her with an exquisitely made doll's house, to furnish as she wishes. It is the very image of the house in which she lives, stuffed with oil paintings, rich textiles and objets d'art. Nella commissions a mysterious miniaturist, whose parcels contain finely crafted items - some unasked for - and dolls that reflect and sometimes predict the events in Nella's increasingly bizarre life.
There's a city-wide ban on sugar but Johannes, a dealer in sugar and spice, hoards sugar loaves belonging to some clients in a warehouse, a key part in his downfall. Burton uses sugar as a metaphor for the repressed greed and hypocrisy of Amsterdam; the shades of modern London also can't be ignored.
When Johannes is discovered by Nella in the throes of passion with his lover, the unexpected thing is how remarkably worldly Nella is, considering her age and background. For the sensitive reader, this may be where the suspension of disbelief breaks down. This would be a shame, as Burton is a talented writer of precise and exquisitely (sometimes too exquisitely) wrought prose.
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