Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Book Review: The Miniaturist

After reading The Muse by Jessie Burton, I knew that I wanted to read her debut. I wasn’t disappointed, I love the whimsical, yet factual way that she writes. The Miniaturist takes inspiration from one of the many doll’s houses on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Owned by Petronella Oortman, it then corresponds well with the main character of the novel. Nella arrives at her new home, her marital home with only herself and her pet bird, expecting to be greeted by her new husband before seeing only two servants and her new sister-in-law. She’s only just eighteen, but as a reader you have to remind yourself that this is a fairly ordinary situation for a seventeenth century young girl to put in. Her father has died and left her family very poor so as the eldest child, Nella has been expected to marry well to save her siblings. However, her new life seems to be a house full of secrets and not a single person welcomes her, especially not her new husband Johannes. Nella describes how her mother has given her an expectation of what married life will be like, but hers seems to be not at all what she expects, spending every night and many of her days alone and wondering why her husband is rarely at the house.

However, Nella is arguable lucky because she has married into the rich Brandt merchant family so her social standing is relatively high for such a young girl, although that it partly due to the fact that Johannes is at least twenty years older than she is. Johannes commissions a Cabinet (a doll’s house) which is a miniature model of her marital house as a wedding gift and she is given money from Marin, her sister-in-law to furnish the cabinet with which is where the Miniaturist becomes a player in the novel. Nella writes and commissions the Miniaturist for a few items, which she receives; however in the coming months she begins receiving items that she didn’t ask for. Cornelia, the maid and Marin believe the superstitions that miniatures bring bad luck, but Nella believes that they are leading the way, that there is something she must discover from the cryptic clues that she is being given. For such a young girl, Nella has a remarkable amount of strength. She is determined to be a good wife, regardless of what that means or how difficult it is; in time, her household do come to respect her and the decisions that she makes on behalf of them at various points in the novel.

There are many key players in this novel including Nella, Johannes, Cornelia, Marin and finally Otto, the manservant of the house, alongside the Meermans and the Miniaturist. Otto is the one charcter who stands of physically as he is African; there are many descriptions of him being treated differently and Nella is astounded to see him upon her arrival at her marital home. Through the range of characters as readers we witness a variety themes being explored, such as homophobia, sexuality, feminism, racism and sin. Early on, Nella realised that her dreams of having children are unlikely to ever happen and so some of the twists later on in the novel are completely unexpected. The house of secrets slowly unfolds and we are able to witness a range of unexpected events; somehow, over time, Nella does eventually become the official mistress of the house and often takes charge, which showed to the reader just how much she matured as the novel progressed. In fact, it was interested to see how much her character developed from a innocent child to a strong woman in the space of a few hundred pages. Whereas Johannes and Marin seemed to trust Nella more as time went on, almost encouraging her to think and work for herself, to protect their household. 

Overall, I really loved this book; Jessie Burton is a fantastic storyteller and honestly, I was surprised that this is a debut novel as it’s more or less flawlessly devised. However, one issue that I had with this novel is that the ends were not fully tied; too much was left to the readers imagination and on the one hand, that’s enjoyable as it does make you think, but on the other hand it’s also incredibly frustrating as I (and I’m sure many others) wanted full closure after so many tragic events. This novel drew me in very quickly as I loved the writing style and the plot line in general. There were a few discrepancies, however; for example I was fairly confused by where the Miniaturist came into the story, it felt like her character wasn’t really explored or developed enough and so neither was the suggested idea of superstition and witchcraft surrounding her craftsmanship which was a disappointment for me as I found the cabinet to be a key player in the overall plot for the majority of the novel. I suppose, in fairness that this discrepancy also fits with the lack of tying ends; perhaps I was expecting far too much as I enjoyed this novel so much. Even with the few disappointments, it was written beautifully enough that I can happily excuse Burton and encourage anyone reading this review to read this novel as it is a delight. I love the idea that everyone has secrets hidden in plain view.

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