Book review: Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist

the miniaturistJessie Burton’s historical novel “The Miniaturis” opens with a funeral. From a distance, someone observes this event. It’s clear the observer knows quite a few of those present.

The reader returns to this funeral at the end of the novel and then knows who is observing what. In between the first and last chapter, the story of the miniaturist and young Nella Oortman unfolds.

In the second chapter, Nella arrives at one of the impressive canal houses of Amsterdam. Nella is from a small town some distance from Amsterdam. She has married, but right from the very start, it’s clear something is not right with this marriage. Which bride walks to her new husband’s home unaccompanied and is then not welcome?

The bride’s mother and Nella’s new sister-in-law Marin struck a deal. When Nella’s father died, he left the family impoverished. Marin needed a simple country bumpkin as her brother’s wife. Though Nella does her best, it’s clear her husband, the wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, actually did not wish to marry. A few chapters later and the reader’s suspicions prove right. Johannes not only treats Nella as a child, but as a sister.

There are more secrets in this household, which is run and controlled by Marin. It also consists of Johannes’ servant Otto, a former slave. Then there is the young maid, whom Nella slowly wins over.

For Nella, Amsterdam and this household are stifling. Nella’s little bird is banished to the kitchen. Her musical talents are not appreciated by Marin. The lutes in this household – like Nella – are decorative.

Marin admires a strict Calvinist preacher. Amsterdam’s power brokers and merchants outwardly adhere to strict Protestant rules and regulations. The use of rich clothes, costly furs, sweets and other delights are forbidden, restricted, frowned upon. Or so it seems. For Nella finds out this is a society where everything turns around outward appearances.

Johannes has a doll-house delivered as a gift to Nella. But soon, miniature gifts reach Nella from a mysterious shop in the Kalverstraat. Moreover, the gifts mirror events and disasters taking place in this secretive household and town.

In the end, Nella uncovers many secrets. She finds out who the miniaturist is. It turns out Marin is not the strict Calvinist she pretends to be. Johannes and Nella learn to esteem and like each other, but by then it is far too late to save their relationship.

This book is readable, provided one doesn’t know too much about Dutch 17th century history nor 17th century Amsterdam. For those who are unfamiliar with certain VOC terms, there is a small glossary at the end of the novel. Some reviewers harp about the research which must have gone into this book. Really – if any thorough research was done, not much ended up in this novel.

A reader should also be willing to swallow an awful lot. This truly is fiction, or rather Fiction, if not FICTION. The link with what life in Amsterdam at the time really was like, is very slim. The book aims to entertain and is only slightly above romantic fiction written by say Danielle Steel, Elizabeth Adler, and many others. Think Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and similar books aimed to entertain a female reading public.

This book can only be palatable to female readers and then to the ones who are not good at guessing games. Quite a few mysteries are truly too easy to deduct. Some outcomes can be guessed chapters in advance.

As other critics noticed: all characters are flat. Some events beggar belief. Possible interesting conflicts are not addressed. Moreover, Nella definitely belongs more to contemporary than historic fiction.

Nevertheless: this is a none-too-taxing easy read for romantices. Especially those who visited Amsterdam for a long weekend and only want to scratch its 17th century surface. There are better books to remember your Amsterdam visit by. This is one of the many novels much hyped about and easily forgotten.

In short: if you can borrow this historic novel from your library or buy it cheaply second-hand, have a go. If you have money to burn and are a fan of this kind of pulp fiction: buy it. Otherwise, save your money for more interesting and memorable reads.

BBC Youtube interview with Jessie Burton

“The Miniaturist”, Jessie Burton, Picador Books, 2014. This novel has been translated in many languages, can be ordered through Amazon and is also available as Kindle.

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2 thoughts on “Book review: Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist

    • Agree. It was selected for a discussion by one of the readers’ groups I’m a member of. The BBC interview included at the bottom of this post is interesting for all budding writers though.

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