The Miniaturist begins as eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at her new home on the Herengracht canal, Amsterdam. She has a ‘small trunk and birdcage’ and a ‘blink of a marriage ceremony the month before – no garlands, no betrothal cup, no wedding bed’. She has married a successful businessman, Johannes Brandt, 39. The marriage was arranged by her mother following the death of Nella’s father.
Her father tied them up with his knot of debts – the soup thinned, the meat got scraggier, the servants fell away…’You need to marry a man who can keep a guilder in his purse,’ her mother said, taking up her pen.
‘But I have nothing to give in return,’ Nella replied.
Her mother tutted. ‘Look at you. What else do we women have?’
It is 1686 and women’s rights, or indeed rights for any ‘minority’, don’t exist.
It’s clear from the moment Nella stands on that doorstep, and we stand there with her, things aren’t as they ought to be. She uses the knocker to announce her arrival, then turns to watch an incident taking place on the street. When she turns back, the door is ajar.
Nella is sure of one thing as she looks deeper into the shadows. She’s being watched.
Eventually, someone speaks, ‘a voice sails sure and swift from the darkness of the hall’ and a woman reveals herself. The woman is Marin Brandt, Johannes’ sister.
Marin is cold and unwelcoming. She seems to resent Nella’s intrusion to the household, particularly as she’s given up her room for Nella’s use. However, once Johannes returns – from a trip to Venice, he tells Nella, although it is a trip to London he tells Marin about – another side to Marin is revealed. During breakfast, she discusses trade with her brother:
From bullion to sultans via the English, Marin’s lexicon is a serious astonishment. Johannes is surely crossing a forbidden boundary – for what other woman knows this much about the ins and outs of the VOC?
That’s not the only unusual thing about this brother and sister either, there’s only two servants in the household which is odd for someone so rich; the manservant, Otto, has black skin. Then there’s the footsteps and the doors opening and closing deep into the night. But for Nella, the most disturbing thing is the absence of her new husband from her bed.
In an attempt to appease Nella, Johannes buys her a wedding gift: an exact miniature replica of their house:
The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed. The nine rooms, from the working kitchen, the salon, up to the loft where the peat and firewood are stored away from damp, are perfect replicas. ‘It’s got a hidden cellar too,’ Johannes says, lifting the floor up between the working and best kitchens, to reveal a concealed empty space. The ceiling in the best kitchen has been painted with an identical trick of the eye. Nella remembers her conversation with Otto, as he pointed his finger to that unreal dome. Things will spill over,’ he’d said.
And they will, as Nella enlists the services of a miniaturist who will create piece for the house which are a little too realistic.
The Miniaturist is a gripping read. Burton’s skill as a writer is evident in a number of ways: the air of menace which is created on the very first page of the novel and pervades all 422 pages of it; the creation of Marin, in particular, who is the very best sort of unlikeable character and whose layers are slowly stripped away as the story progresses, and the deft plotting. The book twists and turns when it’s least expected without it feeling unrealistic or unnecessary. Some of the twists are truly shocking in the revelation and the moment you think the story has settled again, another jolt comes along.
I’m not a big historical fiction fan but I read The Miniaturist in three days (during one of our busiest times at work) because I had to know why, what, who, where, when and once I had one piece of information the absence of another was revealed. Jessie Burton has produced an impressive debut novel; I look forward to following what will surely be a very successful writing career.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.