book: The Miniaturist (2014) by Jessie Burton

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A few months ago I watched — and was very much taken by — the BBC miniseries based on this novel, so the next time I saw the latter for sale I snatched up a copy. On balance I enjoyed the novel, to which the TV adaptation is remarkably faithful (except, if memory serves, toward the very end), but I was rather less enthused by it than I’d expected to be.

Country girl Nella Oortman, of an esteemed but impoverished family, comes to Amsterdam as the wife of the far older Johannes Brandt, a merchant and entrepreneur. She finds a household that’s riven and full of secrets and a husband who shows little interest in her, especially at bedtime. He does, however, exhibit signs of friendship toward her, and buys her as a belated wedding gift a cabinet divided into nine furnished rooms, mimicking in miniature the rooms of the Brandt house.

In a local trade directory Nella locates a miniaturist, whom she commissions to make further furnishings and accoutrements for the “house.” Soon, though, as the affairs of the Brandts spiral into chaos and tragedy, the miniaturist begins sending Nella tiny artifacts she hasn’t asked for, artifacts that display an uncanny knowledge of the house and the family secrets and seem to predict the future . . .

It’s in many ways an engaging fantasy, although I think I’ve come across the germ of its premise more than once among old pulp-era science fiction and fantasy magazine stories. (That’s not intended as a criticism. Most story ideas have precursors; it’s what you do with the premise that matters.) The book’s probably a bit overlong, but most books are these days. The various main characters came across as real people, and the paranoia is well depicted of living in a city where religious bigotry can destroy a livelihood and indeed a life overnight on the whim of powerful people for whom everything’s a sin save their own small-minded hypocrisy.

All good stuff.

Where I had more difficulty, however, was in the writing style. All too often when novels are written in the present tense I question the reasoning whereby this policy has been adopted — aside from the fact that it’s, like, trendy. This was one of those novels. Usually my irritation fades after a few pages, but in this instance it kept interrupting my enjoyment of Burton’s tale. I just itched for the story to have been written in the past tense.

Even leaving that aside, I had concerns about the telling itself, which featured (for me) far too many instances of the borderline twee. Here’s a sample:

Here she is a puppet, a vessel for others to pour her speech. (p94)

and

As Nella lowers her gaze to the people milling inside the church, her heart sends a hot thump of blood into her stomach. (p108)

and

Her speech slides like butter in a pan. (p232)

In the first instance I’m not even sure what the sentence/image means. I can get the puppet bit, but the edifice of my comprehension comes tumbling down when I reach the pouring vessel.

Petronella Oortman was, as I discovered from the novel’s prelims and a furtive look at Wikipedia, a real person, and her cabinet dollhouse is on display at the Rijksmuseum. She did indeed marry Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt, but as a wealthy widow rather than the teenage virgin of the novel. I assume all the other details of their fictional lives are invented; really it’s not important one way or the other because this is first and foremost a novel. And it’s a novel that underpins its fantastication with some fragments of history rather than a historical novel.

Rather like Petronella Oortman’s house, The Miniaturist is a fascinating curio, and I’m very glad I’ve read it. But, as I say, there was too much that irked me about the telling for the novel to wholly endear itself to me.

12 thoughts on “book: The Miniaturist (2014) by Jessie Burton

  1. Excellent review. The story does sound intriguing, but from the samples of the prose you supply, it is obvious the book was not critically edited. Perhaps it was more important to be supportive of the author than to shield the reader from the second coming of Harry Stephen Keeler or James Corbett. Both Keeler and Corbett would have been proud of “Her speech slides like butter in a pan”.

  2. Yes, excellent review. Historical fiction isn’t my thing, but I ended up reading this a few years ago when a member of my book group selected it as her choice. Like you, I had a few issues with some of the prose (the line about speech sliding like butter in a pan is a great example). Also, there were times when I felt that Burton was transposing 21st-century feminist values onto Nella, a character from the 17th century, so some of her actions didn’t quite ring true for me. Quibbles aside though, I found it an engaging read.

    • I certainly found it, after a while, a page-turner, and became quite invested in the various characters. At the same time when I performed the acid test of asking myself if I’d grab up a sequel, should such a thing come along, I realized that I wouldn’t. Amid all the good stuff there’s just (for me) too much here that’s irritating.

    • Oh, sorry: I meant to say that the 21st-century feminism aspect didn’t bother me. I accepted this as a fantasy/mystery/psychological novel rather than a historical novel, so I wasn’t concerned if it played fast and loose with history.

  3. You said it: Most novels these days are over-written, which is a Great Annoyance to me. Combined with the snippets you quoted from the book, I think I might skip the novel and look for the miniseries instead.

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