The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Tanja Jennings
Reviewed by Tanja Jennings
Summary: This novel is an imaginative, impressive, skilful début. Burton is a powerful and sensitive writer. Each character lives through her pages and lingers in the reader's mind after the close. She spins her words like sugar, revelling in the craft of storytelling. Realistic historical detail is effortlessly mixed with fictional artistry as the reader’s senses are bombarded with the sweetness and sourness of the private and public Seventeenth Century lives of affluent, hypocritical, obsessive and insecure Amsterdammers celebrating a ‘Golden Age’ but caught between Guilders and God, desire and morality.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: January 2015
Publisher: Picador
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781447250937

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Long listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2015

The Miniaturist is a meticulously researched wonder of a book. Burton, her imagination fired by a trip to the Rijksmuseum, where she viewed the wealthy Amsterdammer merchant’s wife Petronella Oortman’s elaborate 1686 cabinet dolls' house, revels in creating her fictional world. She imbues it with authentic details including descriptions of actual rooms, pieces of commissioned art, a parrot’s cage, food made from wax, furniture made to exact scale and miniature puppets. She is a word smith, painting a rich canvas of imagery and emotions for the reader. Her ‘Nella’ Oortman is a tentative rural bride of 18 embarking on a union with an older, learned man of languages who has a warehouse full of strange curiosities.

On arriving at her new abode on the Herengracht, the ingénue Petronella discovers a troubled household. When the door opens she meets the enigmatic and imperious Marin, the assured Cornelia and the handsome negro, Otto. As the reader is invited in, witnessing events through Nella's eyes, a power play ensues.

The discomfort and palpable tension in the Brandt home is reflected in Burton’s simple prose, The air is hot, the atmosphere a bruise. When Nella’s husband, Johannes, awkwardly presents her with the gift of a 30,000 Guilder ornately carved and intricately crafted cabinet, encasing a nine roomed dolls' house mirroring their home, she feels patronised when he asks her to amuse herself by furnishing it.

Nevertheless she hires the services of an elusive miniaturist commissioning a few pieces that appeal to her expectations.This opens the door to further mysteries. Why does the miniaturist seem to eerily know more about her situation than she does? As Nella observes, she spins my life…And I cannot see the consequences. Under the miniaturist’s gaze, the young bride experiences the unprecedented sensation of being impaled- the woman’s scrutiny is like a beam of cold light dissecting her, filling her with an awareness of her own body.

Burton explains how her novel addresses moral anxiety through the motif of the reflective nature of interiors: It explores what is hidden, what cannot be said. It lays bare the struggle to be understood, the desire to connect, but also the wish to hand over our fates to an outside force rather than take responsibility for our choices.

For a first time author, Burton is masterful in her command of simile and metaphor expressing love: You are sunlight through a window, which I stand in, warmed, nervousness: her fingers are damp, like a pond-pulled frog, austere anger: the ice in her voice slides all the way down the stairs, making him freeze and the fluidity of movement: the animal moves like spilled liquid, masterless, a chess piece rolling out of place.

Who is Jack? Who is Peebo? Who are Rezeki and Dhana? Why is it so important for Johannes to sell sugar for the Meermans? What is the Brandts’ secret that threatens to destroy them all? What is the miniaturist’s motive for sending messages? Is she a prophetess? Why is Nella writing letters to a clockmaker? Will she sink or swim in a world of religious hypocrisy where Gingerbread Men are outlawed for their false sugary idolatry? Are we the architects of our own destiny? Can Nella find the inner strength to deal with adversity and discover herself?

Read The Miniaturist and all will be revealed whilst you marvel along the way at the sumptuousness of the language and evocative imagery alive with shades of light and dark. This book is a master class in historical fiction and a good choice for a reading club. It is not difficult to see why it was at the centre of a bidding war with 11 publishers and quickly became a best-seller. Reminiscent of Chevalier's The Girl with a Pearl Earring in its period setting, it deserves to be put on the silver screen.

Burton includes a glossary of terms, financial comparisons; further reading suggestions and her own thoughts to enhance the reader’s understanding of the period in this paperback edition.

If you would like to read more about the "Golden Age" of commerce and the Dutch East India Company take a look at Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook. For more on the sights, sounds and art of seventeenth Century Amsterdam, in a fictionalised setting based on a real life person, why not try I Am Rembrandt's Daughter by Lynn Cullen. Alternatively if you would like to stay in the world of miniatures and mystery, marvel at this curio: How Watson Learned the Trick by Arthur Conan Doyle, which includes a miniaturised tale of Sherlock Holmes measuring just 38.5mm by 33mm commissioned by Princess Marie Louise for the library of her dolls' house, along with a booklet detailing the design work undertaken by Sir Edward Lutyens to create this elaborate replica for Queen Mary, which displays contributions from over 1,500 of the finest artists, craftsmen and manufacturers of the early 20th century, has working electricity and boasts a garden created by Gertrude Jekyll. It is interesting to compare Queen Mary's 1924 miniature palace to Petronella Oortman's 1686 dolls' house which was encased in a cabinet of tortoiseshell adorned with pewter inlays and decorated with original, miniature paintings and murals commissioned from successful Dutch artists. It also featured hand-crafted wicker and upholstered furniture, sculpted ceiling reliefs, marble flooring, and miniature porcelain dish-ware specially ordered from China. Both were period portraits of interior life and objets d'arts to be marvelled at. Both cost a small fortune.

Buy The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton at Amazon.com.


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