It is 1686, and eighteen year old Nella Oortman has just arrived in Amsterdam at the house of her new husband, the eminent merchant Johannes Brandt, whom she has met only fleetingly. From the moment of her icy reception at the hands of her new sister-in-law, Nella realises that married life will not be all that she anticipated, and that the Brandt family is one rife with secrets. However, an unexpected opportunity for Nella to unlock these mysteries arises in the form of a miniature replica of their house Johannes presents to her as a wedding gift – and the forebodingly accurate creations of the elusive Miniaturist whom Nella employs to furnish it.
Jessie Burton’s debut novel is a pleasant read – her smooth writing style and occasionally lyrical language lend the story a degree of fluidity, and after starting the book, is easy to simply keep on reading. I found myself becoming increasingly tied up with the Brandt family and their troubles; yet, under fiercer scrutiny, I cannot help but pick holes in some aspects of the novel. The two major plot threads – that of Nella’s entry and submersion into the family’s life and that of Nella’s interaction with and reaction to the Miniaturist – run alongside each other with frequent overlaps throughout the novel. However, it did not feel as though the two merged together as effectively as they could have. That is to say, for me, it felt like they existed as two separate plots that only on occasion fully exhibited their potential to lend coherence to one another.
My other issue was with Burton’s characters. At the beginning, I found that Nella wavered between frightened mouse and impertinent child, with only some betrayal of the admirably headstrong young woman who, admittedly, she does become in the latter part of the novel. Her relationship with Johannes – who is absent for much of the plot and generally distant when he does appear – is also one I struggled to grasp. We see very little interaction between husband and wife, and I cannot help but feel that Nella’s sympathy for and understanding of him at the end is not quite deserved. Marin, in contrast, was without a doubt my favourite Brandt family member. Imposing and intimidating at the start, and rigorously determined right until the end, she is an admirable force far superior to her brother, and – unlike some of the others – she is a consistent presence throughout the novel.
Many of the characters in this novel express startling modernity in their world views, Nella perhaps most of all, as she navigates the new territory of marriage only to emerge with a revived sense of independence and strength. However, there was definitely something non-cohesive between these characters and their seventeenth century setting. To endow them with modern world views was a refreshing idea, but not one that was executed convincingly enough. Overall I would say that The Miniaturist is enjoyable to read and certainly well-intentioned, but unfortunately it did not quite live up to the expectations I had set for it.
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