I knew this would happen, I just knew it. I forgot to include Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist in my ‘The Year in Books’ post and it certainly deserves a mention. It’s another great title I simply forgot I ever read until I glanced up at my bookcase. This year I’m going to actually keep a list and get organised. That’s my New Year’s Resolution, except I’m hoping to keep it until 31st December 2016 when I can post my next ‘The Year in Books’.
This novel I simply read because it was recommended to me in an email from Waterstones. Usually I take no notice of such things and just read what I know I’m interested in. However, this means I tend not to read any really contemporary fiction, and this is vital if I ever want to make it in the publishing industry, so I said ‘carpe diem’ and clicked on the book with the prettiest cover. That’s horrendous to admit I know but I think a little part of us all chooses books off the shelf depending on the attractiveness of the cover. I read the description and was convinced. ‘How different,’ I thought.
The story is set in Amsterdam from 1686-1687 (a time period and setting I know absolutely nothing about, which always helps to spike my interest) and revolves around a woman who marries a wealthy merchant trader named Johannes Brandt. Nella is only eighteen years old and knows little of the world but she soon realises something is amiss when her husband never consummates the marriage and seems to avoid her at all costs, locked in his study or hiding away in his the office at the warehouse. It seems there is more to him than meets the eye, it just takes her a little while to work out what.
The real focus point of this novel is Johannes’s wedding gift to her, a cabinet-sized dolls house, a complete replica of her new home. At first she is insulted at being made mistress of a dolls house rather than her new home, which is strictly policed by Johannes’s sharp-tongued sister Marin.
It’s not long before Nella becomes interested in the cabinet and discovers a miniaturist working in the nearby township (in what I can only assume to be Amsterdam 1686’s version of the Yellow Pages). She writes to the miniaturist asking for a few items to make her feel more at home, including a miniature of her pet parakeet and a block of marzipan like her mother used to make. However, it is not long before the miniaturist is posting her gifts she never asked for – miniatures uncannily close to things in her real life – things the miniaturist couldn’t possibly know. Nor is it long before Nella notices the gifts have the rather eerie ability of predicting the future.
Running alongside this slightly unnerving narrative is the story of Nella’s relationship with her husband and the financial doom that seems to appear out of nowhere. The novel also targets certain racial issues at the time and explores a wonderful, albeit unexpected, friendship between Nella and Marin.
The Miniaturist takes several unpredictable turns and there are some truly heartbreaking moments – but what I think I enjoyed most about it was it’s originality. Never before have I read a book that mixes together an interesting historic setting with something so fantastic and uncanny, and yet realistic all at the same time. It’s a true mix of genre this one, and for a first novel I think it’s remarkable. Huge congratulations to Jessie Burton for getting her debut novel published in approximately 30 countries!
I’ve also read that although the novel makes no attempts to be biographical, Petronella Oortman was real woman with a real dollhouse that you can view at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. So there you go, an extra little tidbit of information for you.
Until next time!