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Set in 17th century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist is the story of a young bride, Nella, married by arrangement to a wealthy merchant twice her age. While her husband, Johannes, shows little interest in her, his puritanical sister, Marin, is downright hostile. When Nella arrives in Amsterdam everything is strange, from the African servant to Johannes’ wedding gift: a doll’s house modelled in every detail on her new home.
Author Jessie Burton paints a vivid picture of Amsterdam and one almost feels the autumn chill rise off nearby canals on reading how Nella waits at her new husband’s door. The first few chapters are unsettling, brilliantly conveying Nella’s discomfort and confusion in her new home. She witnesses frightening and unexplainable things, like the ritual drowning of three men. The reoccurring imagery of water – its power, the danger and opportunity it represents for the city and its citizens – reinforces the sense that Nella is out of her depth.
Marriage is supposed to harness love, to increase a woman’s power, Nella supposes. But does it?
As Nella ventures into Amsterdam society, she finds conversations “combative and unsettling, passing for casual talk”. Burton’s Amsterdam is not just the centre of a great and powerful empire but a fascistic state “where the pendulum swings from God to a guilder”. There is no doubt that Burton has been thorough in her research. She has reproduced an interesting but intolerant world where women, among others, suffer from prejudice and their lack of power.
The Miniaturist touches on racism and explores homophobic attitudes during the time in which it is set. Refreshingly, it eschews romantic love, which is rare in a book that is largely, I suspect, marketed at female readers. Burton is on record saying that she wanted to create female characters “who for once are not defined by any other ideal than that they are human”. To a large extent she has succeeded in doing that.
And the waves will drown us all, Seigneurs. I have seen the ledger books, I have seen how the VOC is crumbling into the waters… those with no horizons want to pull yours down. They have nothing, only bricks and beams, not one jot of God’s great joy.
As Nella learns more about her new family, her attention centres on the doll’s house and its miniature inhabitants. The miniaturist sends Nella dolls and objects that reflect life in her new home, including things she hasn’t asked for, which prompts both protagonist and reader to ask how the miniaturist knows what is happening and how she can predict the future.
The mysteries of who the miniaturist is or why she takes an interest in Nella’s life are never satisfyingly resolved. Instead the plot changes direction, exploring the intolerance and greed of the Burgomasters and merchant class. And so, The Miniaturist is entertaining rather than thought-provoking. The plot falters and the characters could do with a little more depth. But it is brilliant at evoking time and place. And for anyone with an interest in social history, it is a fascinating period study of the Dutch capital.