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The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton review

Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam–a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion–a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

“There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . .”

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand–and fear–the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

A book based on a museum piece, a dollhouse even, how peculiar. The dollhouse in Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist really exists, and can even be admired in the Rijksmuseum. The historical similarities do, however, stop there – Burton was inspired, but does not pretend to have written a biographical book.

As a plot point, however, it is immediately the biggest downside of the book. Without the dollhouse or the “miniaturist”, the plot would have worked just as well or even better – the outcome of the whole mystery surrounding the miniaturist’s identity is a hefty anticlimax.

The things that happen on and by the Amsterdam canal are much more interesting. Here Burton seems to complete a checklist of special historical characters: the gay, the black man, the independent woman. In itself, I am a strong believer that we do not pretend that history was always white and straight, as if gays and people of color were only invented in the 1960s. But it is a pity that Burton does not come with many new insights. The black servant of the family is strangely looked at on the street, the independent woman is accepted (it seems), but we cannot find out how people really feel about her. The main character Nella is actually the least interesting character in the book.

It is special to read a book that takes place in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, but was not written by a Dutchman. That sometimes yields interesting historical insights, but for those who have a little knowledge of time and language, it sometimes leads to a distraction. I couldn’t stop translating things in my head myself, and that sometimes causes difficulties. For example, Burton can happily incorporate “toy” and “boy” into a rhyme, for a Dutch speaker like me it is immediately clear that this had never worked with “toys” and “boy”.

Despite these disadvantages, The Miniaturist reads like a train. The writing style is smooth, the chapters are short and often end with a cliffhanger. That makes it easy for you to think often, “oh, one more,” and before you know it you have read five more chapters. So do you want to read a new book soon? Then definitely go for The Miniaturist.

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