The Miniaturist

Jessie Burton, 2015

1686, Amsterdam. Nella Oortman arrives from the country to the house of Johannes Brandt. Her arranged marriage to the wealthy merchant will secure her family and provide respectability for Brandt who has never wed. Yet upon her arrival, Nella discovers not the house of warmth and love she had wished for. Instead she is confronted by the stern Marin, sister to Johannes, and the former slave Otto, Johannes’ inscrutable manservant.

Nella is confused by her place in this home. Johannes shows her little affection and instead presents her with a doll’s house — a scale replica of the very house they all share as a home. But the doll’s house is bare and Johannes invites her to furnish it as his expense.

Nella commissions the titular miniaturist to fashion tiny furniture for the replica home. When the first commissions arrive they include tiny facsimiles of everyone in the house, including Johannes’ beloved dogs and Nella’s pet parrot, Peebo. Nella is at first delighted with the dolls, despite not having requested them. But as dark events take hold of the Brandts and unsettling commissions arrive to mirror them, Nella wonders how the miniaturist knows so much.

As Nella finds her feet in her new life, she becomes aware of well-kept secrets among the household. Johannes and Marin between them seem to withhold much from Nella. Johannes spends little time with her and does not share her bed, while Marin is dismissive and mistrustful. Despite Nella’s apparent naivety, she becomes determined to discover the truth about the Brandts and the mysterious miniaturist.

The author paints an exquisite picture of seventeenth century Amsterdam. The prose is often beautiful and poetic, and charged with insight and emotion. I found all the characters to be interesting, although I didn’t quite believe in them enough to fully inhabit their individual stories. Nella in particular is a curious creation: I was puzzled that she seemed far wiser than her 18 years would suggest. She has the anachronistic sensibilities of a twenty-first century woman. I remain doubtful about Nella’s character and unconvinced by her behaviour.

I found the novel to be beautifully written, with interesting characters and some dark tragedy that left me quite moved. But the unrealised premise (who is the miniaturist and what does she want?), and Nella’s too-modern outlook, left me somewhat confused and wanting a little more.

History, Literary, Mystery, Romance