The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Set in 17th century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist begins with country girl Nella, barely eighteen, arriving at the home of the husband she hardly knows following their recently arranged marriage. Johannes isn't at home, and Nella is immediately drawn into the odd, secretive world of the Brandt household, full of hints, whispers and mysterious arguments over Johanne's business affairs. There's Marin, Johannes' domineering spinster sister who seems unwilling to relinquish her role as mistress of the household, and servants Cornelia and Otto - the latter a black footman ostensibly now free after being purchased by Brandt as a slave.

When Johannes does finally return home, his wedding gift to his bride is essentially a dolls' house: an expensively crafted cabinet* divided into rooms to replicate the Brandts' own house. Nella, bored and resentful and with Johannes' funds at her disposal, sets about ordering items for the cabinet from a mysterious 'miniaturist' - but more things arrive than she ever requests. Furthermore, each one reveals an uncanny knowledge, even a prescience, of the household which is, it seems, one with plenty of secrets, scandals and surprises.

The historical detail of The Miniaturist is rich and immersive and the characters are brilliantly vivid; I finished the book feeling almost like a part of the household myself. Nella herself is an extremely engaging protagonist, admirably resourceful and determined as well as possessing an appealing capacity for forgiveness that never tips over into weakness. Despite the obvious restrictions placed upon her not only as a woman but also as a resident of the strictly religious Calvinist society of Holland in the 1600s - at one point, the city's burgomasters ban gingerbread men lest their human form be interpreted as Catholic idolatry - Nella is spirited and defiant. It is, in fact, the female characters who ultimately take control in this novel.

How realistic this is might well be up for debate. Certainly some of the characters' attitudes and sensibilities, including Nella's, seem a great deal more modern than one might expect. This undoubtedly gives today's readers an easier ride when it comes to establishing an affinity with them, but it does stretch credibility at times.

My only other issue with this book is the miniaturist of the title. The miniaturist's knowledge of Nella's household and the strange ability of the tiny creations to mirror reality is the central mystery of the novel, an ongoing and gripping plot strand that is woven into the rest of the (not inconsiderable) action. And yet its resolution, while on some levels symbolic, is ultimately unsatisfactory - so much so that it almost feels as if the author set out to write one book, ended up writing another but couldn't quite bring herself to edit out all traces of the original.

That isn't to say that the  work of the miniaturist isn't fascinating, or that it adds nothing to the atmospheric quality of the novel - but it seems that this element of the story was simply unsustainable when it came to the need to bring it to an adequate conclusion. It's lucky that there was a great deal else going on in The Miniaturist, or I would have felt a lot more cheated than I did.

In short, I adored the characters that populated the world of The Miniaturist, and I loved the story itself, heartbreaking though it sometimes is. I was also completely drawn in by the exquisitely realised setting and period. If it weren't for the anticlimax towards the end of the novel, this would have been a five-star read.

*Apparently, the inspiration for Nella Oortman Brandt and her cabinet of miniatures came from this exhibit in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, which once belonged to a real Petronella Oortman who married a merchant called Johannes Brandt. Everything else Jessie Burton tells us about Nella and Johannes is, I assume, entirely fictional. 

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