I’m one of those awkward people who likes to be different and usually steers away from books on the bestseller tables. In several cases I’ve got round to reading such novels months or years later when, generally speaking, they definitely live up to their hype. Jessie Burton’s entrancing tale of secrets and commerce in 17th-century Amsterdam is a case in point. Crafted with as much care as the doll’s house that takes centre stage in the plot, the novel is a tantalising thriller which conjures up all the textures and colours of the Dutch Golden Age.
In its subject matter, The Miniaturist is obviously very close to Tulip Fever, which I read some years ago, but for me it was a fresher, more vibrant and certainly more gripping read. It takes the story in interesting, unforeseen directions, although we start with a common scene: a young woman’s arrival in her new husband’s house, nervously poised to become its mistress. For Nella Oortman, aged eighteen, the prospect is awkward as well as novel. She’s from a family of country gentry, warmhearted and loving but impoverished, and she’s come to the most exclusive part of Amsterdam to exchange the cachet of her old name for the more useful cachet of wealth. But her welcome in this house on the Herengracht – on the Golden Bend, where the houses of the richest merchants cluster on the canalside – is far from effusive.
For a start, her new husband Johannes Brandt isn’t there. The house is dominated by his prim, pious sister Marin, an old maid who quotes scripture and floats around in black, radiating disapproval of her brother’s frivolities. The maid Cornelia is cheeky and impudent, and given to listening at keyholes. And then there’s Otto, the handsome and dignified black manservant, who suffers the taunts of the narrow-minded neighbours. And even when Johannes does come home, Nella feels strangely sidelined. He is pleasant to her, but distant, and her dreams of being the chatelaine of a colourful, lively house, full of children and laughter, begin to crumble.
In fact, the only house Nella looks likely to control is the doll’s house, a miniature of their own, given to her as a wedding present by her much older husband. It is kindly meant, but for Nella it’s a symbol of her infantilisation as a wealthy woman, tucked in a corner to play with her dolls while Marin runs the house and Johannes busies himself with his own affairs. Given permission to decorate, she finds the address of a miniaturist and writes to ask for some small things – a lute, a wedding cup, a box of marzipan – little treats missing in her real life, which she can enjoy in this shrunken world. And the items arrive, and they’re beautiful. But Nella is disturbed by the other items in the same package, which she didn’t order: dolls of herself, Marin, and all the other members of the household, down to Johannes’s dogs. What can this mean? And, as time goes on, what do the miniaturist’s other unsolicited parcels indicate, and why do they begin to show an eerie foreknowledge of how the household’s future will unfold?
For the most part the book is a delight, simmering with quiet menace and full of surprises as Nella uncovers the deeper currents of power, money and desire that fuel her new ‘family’. The one part that didn’t work so well for me – and here please look away if you haven’t read the book – is the business with the miniaturist herself. The mystery is built up so much over the course of the book that I felt slightly cheated by the absence of any real explanation for how the miniaturist knows, and what she hopes to achieve through her creations. Is she seeking to influence events? To warn? To taunt? To record? It’s never quite true. And the scene in which Nella meets Windelbreke felt rather unsatisfying – as if, having built up such a vast, tasty, meaty mystery, Burton couldn’t think of how to bring about the final climactic revelation in an equally strong way. In a way it might have been better not to have any glimpses of the miniaturist at all and to leave her as an unknown force, which might have better suited the ominous, portentous quality of her involvement.
However, I’m splitting hairs. This was a thoroughly good book, surprisingly gripping and extremely well written. I know Burton has recently published a second book, The Muse. Has anyone read that yet and should I track down a copy at some point?
Just a point to finish: anyone who’s been to the Rijksmuseum will know that Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house does indeed exist, dating from around 1686, and is still very much in one piece. The real Petronella had already been widowed by the time she married Johannes Brandt and her possession of a dolls’ house was actually a status symbol rather than a sign of her being nothing but a child-woman. They were all the rage at this date and wealthy ladies showed off their taste and style as much in their dolls’ houses as they did in their own. In real life, it seems that Petronella had a daughter and a son, but I’m not sure whether these were children from her first marriage or the children she had with Brandt. I’m sure someone out there, more knowledgeable than me, will be able to enlighten us.