The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton - book review


Rachel Hore
Friday 01 August 2014 13:00

It’s 1676 and 18-year-old Nella Oortman arrives with her trunk and her pet parakeet at a “stately and beautiful house” on Amsterdam’s Herengracht. This prime piece of real estate belongs to her wealthy merchant husband, Johannes Brandt, whom she’s met once, in a “blink of a marriage ceremony” at her childhood country home a month earlier.

Behind this opulent frontage operates the strangest of ménages. Johannes, though kindly, barely acknowledges her existence. He’s at work all day and the marriage remains unconsummated. His sister Marin, who keeps house, is stiff-mannered, full of repressed secrets. Johannes’s manservant, Otto, Nella regards with “ill-concealed fascination” because his skin is “dark, dark brown everywhere”. Otto at least is a sign of her husband’s humanity – Johannes rescued him from a Portuguese slaver.

As a “distraction”, Johannes presents Nella with an exquisite miniature version of their marital home, correct down to pictures, utensils and tiny representations of its inhabitants. This wedding gift enchants and disturbs, but when she seeks out its creator, she glimpses only a woman with “hair like pale gold thread” who stares meaningfully before vanishing. Via enigmatic messages and objects for the cabinet, the miniaturist manipulates the novel’s events like a ludic dea ex machina.

In this lushly written debut, it’s as though figures from old Dutch masters come to life. Here, a blind boy steals a herring from a shrieking fishwife. There, a pastor shoos a spiced-wine seller from his church’s entrance. Nella’s pretty parakeet flies free. While Jessie Burton’s street scenes, canals and markets bustle with noise and colour, one infers that Vermeer’s quiet domestic interiors draw her more, her subject being the private natures of her characters in this tightly governed society. The secret that makes a mockery of their marriage, and puts their lives in danger, is revealed early on when Nella discovers her husband in flagrante with a lover, the miniaturist’s mercurial English delivery boy.

Feisty yet tender, Nella is a heroine to suit a modern readership, but the nature of her tolerance and understanding would have made her highly unusual for her time. Much else, too, about the novel reflects the concerns of the 21st century and while this gives it edge and accessibility, occasionally I longed for the 17th century to be left to be itself.

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