by Jessie Burton
“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.”
My daughter gave me The Miniaturist as a Christmas present and when I began reading I had no idea what to expect. It is one of those novels which you struggle at the outset to place in any single category of fiction. Set in Amsterdam in 1686/7, it is certainly a historical novel. It is a mystery too, with hints of fantasy, but it also has the feel of literary fiction. Jessie Burton writes in the present tense, which does not always work and which some readers still consider experimental and affected, even arrogant.
It works here. The immediacy of the tense makes Amsterdam seem more wintry, its watery landscaspe bleaker, the contrast between rich and poor starker. The uncanny reflections of the real world in the tiny creations of the miniaturist, the dogma-driven prejudices of the masses, the horrors of seventeenth century justice and the occasional uncomfortable reminder of the inequality of the sexes all put the reader right in the centre of the action.
Petronella (Nella) Oortman arrives at the house of her rich merchant husband Johannes Brandt to be met by his sharp-tongued sister Marin. Johannes is away from home. The rest of the household comprises the maidservant Cornelia, the black African Otto and two dogs. Meantime, a large consignment of sugar belonging to Frans and Agnes Meermans sits unsold and deteriorating in Johannes’ warehouse.
When he does return from a foreign trip, Johannes is distant with his new wife. However, he presents her with a dolls house replica of his home which Nella immediately begins to fill with miniature furniture and figures. When the miniaturist sends pieces that she did not order, and continually does so, Nella is at first annoyed then curious. There is something unnatural about the way in which the tiny figures are predictive of future events as if their creator had a crystal-ball view of the Brandts’ business and personal life.
A tiny spoiled loaf of sugar, representing the consignment that is beginning to rot in the warehouse; the tiny dog with a flack of blood on its head; the miniature of a woman with swollen belly; the replica of the English boy with a stab wound; the empty parakeet cage; are these accidental flaws, lucky guesses or products of some devilish foreknowledge? Nella has to find out, but the miniaturist remains hidden, unreachable behind the walls of the house in Kalverstraat ‘at the sign of the sun’.
“This is not a small baby … Nella thinks of the little cradle in the cabinet house and a shiver runs up her body. How did the miniaturist know about this?”
As the predictions of the miniaturist become more sinister, the household approaches a crisis, one that neither money – nor love – will be able to avert. And as we reach the climax of the plot, the question posed by the first two sentences of the prologue comes back to haunt us. Just whose funeral are we attending?
The Miniaturist is an unusual, suspenseful story of love and hate, of prejudice and injustice. The relationships are not always what they seem. And in the open ending, there is a crumb of hope that out of tragedy and loss may come something good and lasting. Burton knows how to use words to create atmosphere; she is good at surprises. I enjoyed the book and might read it again soon to pick up nuances of style and character missed on the first reading.