I am in the middle of moving house. This involves packing (of course), organising utility disconnections and having earnest discussions with the local moving company about the number of ‘heavy-duty-jumbo’ boxes I’ll need to transport my book collection. Good thing I also own a Kindle!
Anyway, amid the chaos that is my life right now, I am still sneaking in a wee bit of reading and writing. One has to have some small pleasure….and this small pleasure comes in the shape of a book about that very thing - small pleasures (in this case, objects) and their impact on our lives.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton:
Jessie Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist, sets the bar high for any future work. Based in Amsterdam in the 17th century, this novel is centered around the life of Petronella (Nella) Oortman, a country girl who marries a wealthy Amsterdam merchant, Johannes, to save the family name.
But all is not as it seems. At first Nella is strangely fascinated with her new husband, who treats her with benign neglect, barely spending any time with her during her months as his new wife. For Nella, she longs to know him better, but is also apprehensive of what may await her in the marriage bed.
While the age gap between them is significant (over 20 years), is there something more holding Johannes back from his wife? And what are these business matters keeping him away from the house at all houses of the day and night?
With Johannes away much of the time, Nella is left to seek out the company of her cold sister-in-law Marin, along with the various domestic staff including Otto (a former slave) and Cornelia (a orphan and former ward of the state).
When Johannes presents Nella with the gift of a miniature replica of their house, mysterious things being happening….
Example of mid-17C miniature house
This novel opens well, with vivid and colourful descriptions of Amsterdams’s people, places and social norms. Throughout the first part of the book, Burton keeps the plot momentum going. By adding layers of mystery, and twists into the plot, she keeping the reader keen. Her characters too, have something that evoke deep curiosity. How will the young Nella, green country girl, fare in this new city? Is her life to be one of misery, being unable to assert her authority over a household already dominated by Marin? But what is Marin’s story and why is she, in this patriarchal society, unmarried and living with her brother?
It is heartening to watch as Nella transforms from an inexperienced teenager into a more self possessed woman. She re-connects with her musical ability by giving a performance to household guests and draws on her knowledge of established social norms to build her confidence as the true mistress of the house.
The supporting character lose some of their surface hostility and aloofness as their relationship with Nella grows, and more is revealed about their back-stories, adding a richness to the household cast of characters.
However for all the good intentions in the first half, including the delicious mystery surrounding the miniature house and its creator, the second half left me disappointed.
The plot was subtly taken over by a soap-opera quality of the latter half of the novel, taking some shine from this ambitious work of historical fiction. I can’t say too much more here, don’t want to spoil the fun, but it involves a series of ‘oh my gosh, really? moments, one after the other.
Nella too, sometimes does and says things that call on the reader to really suspend belief. I know that’s what fiction is all about, but still….
I think readers familiar with enjoyed Sarah Waters and Emma Donughue will also enjoy Burton’s offering, as well as those who enjoy historical fiction of all forms. Not the most well-written book of this genre I have read recently, but a decent crack from a first-time novelist, and well worth a look.
The coolest thing about the novel, is what inspired it – an actual Dutch doll house of the real-life Petronella Oortman.
Oh, and reading the The Miniaturist also makes me want to:
1) Visit Amsterdam;
2) Eat loads of sugar (ha! Nothing new there);
3) Read more about the Netherlands and gender roles during the 17th century; and
4) Attempt to make oliebol
Happy weekend all! Thanks for reading my highly sporadic blog ;)