Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, has garnered a lot of attention, being the subject of a publishing bidding war and then described as being “beautifully written” by SJ Watson and “terrific” by Nathan Filer.
Set in Amsterdam in 1686, it is about eighteen year old Petronella who has just married Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant who is not there to greet her. Not exactly the best start to a marriage, she is welcomed by her sister-in-law, the somewhat frosty and intimidating Marin, and the servants Cornelia and Otto. With denied whispers late into the night, a husband who won’t sleep in the same bed as her and a possible prophetess, there is more than enough to keep the suspense alive once you get into it.
When Johannes gives Nella a miniature house, a replica of their own, as a wedding gift, it is both slightly strange and charming. It turns darker when she is sent items to furnish it, which she has not requested. Items which pre-empt what is to come, giving Nella an inkling of how the world she has finally started to know will come crashing down. Secrets will threaten everything she values, tearing apart her world and affecting Marin, Otto, and even Johannes.
Atmospheric and somehow with feminist undertones, Burton starts off a little too static in terms of plot. There are allusions of the secrets but nothing quite materialises. Yet, when things start to unravel, it happens quickly and is brilliantly shocking. Twists in the plot are unpredictable yet not ludicrously unbelievable, particularly towards the latter half of the novel, and the ending is completely unforeseeable when thinking about the way the book began.
A sense of characters and evocative language
Well-written, the language Burton uses is particularly note-worthy. Evoking a real sense of Amsterdam in the late 1600s, descriptions are sensual and rarely excessive. Characters are well-described but remain slightly obscure, in line with the theme of secrecy. With language relevant to the time and place in which the novel is set, there is also a glossary at the end of the book, explaining exactly what a puffert is.
am reading The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Defo gets into the head, feel like I’m travelling somewhere bright, tiny, delicate and faraway
— Alison Mercer (@AlisonLMercer) March 16, 2015
Though, it is unfortunate that some characters remain question marks. Some are portrayed with ease and others never quite come into their own, Johannes being one such example. Burton doesn’t capitalise on the relationship between Nella and Johannes, and when she discovers his secrets it is at this point one would expect a little more candour between them. When it comes to the end of the novel and Nella looks back on their experiences it seems odd as there were too few of them. Understandable considering the mysteries that are part of the plot, it still could have been a more emotional read if we had learnt a little more about him and heard more from him, rather than Cornelia.
With few flaws, Burton’s first novel is packed with the right amount of the supernatural alongside the reality of difficult relationships, and is all expressed through thoughtful language. Being a four hundred and something page book, it remains gripping until the very end.
Not at all heavy or convoluted, it will provide some much-needed respite from exams at the moment and is driven by both plot and the character of Nella.