Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Miniaturist: Review

Author: Jessie Burton
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Adult Fiction
Pages: 424
Originally published in: 2014

“True love was a flower in the gut, its petals unfurling inside out. You would risk all for love – blissful, never without its drops of dismay.”

It is mid-October, 1686, when eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. However, instead of an exciting fresh start next to a loving husband, she is presented with a big, dark house in the middle of the city – her husband absent, and his sister acting as the already established lady of the house. As she gets as a wedding gift from Johannes a cabinet-sized replica of their home, Nella begins feeling more and more as a child and less as the woman, she was ready to become. Her only hope for a change in her lonely days is to focus on decorating her new cabinet. So, she gets in touch with a mysterious miniaturist, paying him to make her just a few tiny figures. However, soon Nella realises she is going to get a lot more than she originally bargained for, and as the miniatures keep coming, so do the surprises from her new family.

The Miniaturist is a brilliant debut novel from Jessie Burton and sets the standards really high for her upcoming work. Beautifully written and with an exquisite attention to detail, this is a book that has the power to haunt you until you get to its end. The characters are very well-written and excellently developed throughout the novel, and as the narrative unravels, so do the character’s deep secrets.

As far as historical fictions go, this is one of the better ones. With the ease of an experienced novelist, Burton takes you from your modern daily life and quickly shoves you in the middle of 17th century Amsterdam. Her descriptions are so detailed, yet effortless, that you can easily keep up with the story without feeling the burden of an old-fashioned or confusing language. She sets the mood from the start, each description utterly understandable, making you feel as if this old Amsterdam is part of your world, and you can almost smell the freshly baked olie-koecken, almost feel the chilliness of the cold Dutch wind.

What sets apart The Miniaturist from other books of the genre, are the rich comparisons that definitely have the potential to turn into a trademark of Burton’s style in the future. Here are just a few examples: “A few drops fall from the spout, spreading in the cloth like Virgin Islands on a map.” “The waters are gold and crisped to perfection and the rosewater mingles with the warming ginger.” “The sky is a deep river of indigo, the stars pricked like lights in its flowing stream.”

There is some very traditional feeling to the whole novel that derives from the approach taken with the writing. Truth is, a lot of traditional symbolism can be found in The Miniaturist. For instance, the long-established opposition of darkness and light in classical literature has found its rightful place on the pages of this novel, too. When Nella and Cornelia go to the maid’s old orphanage, its building is in a narrow, dark alley, away from the busy, lively street immediately setting the tone of her sad, lonely childhood. This is then, put in an opposition to the liveliness and noisiness of the streets of Amsterdam, where “light” represents happiness and easy life: “the noise of the shoppers in the Kalverstraat is now muffed by the tight walls of the passage,” “but the maid is already walking back up the passage, towards life and light and noise.”

Further in the book, when Nella is disappointed by Johannes’ lack of interest in her and his coldness, she longs for the light outside: “Night has fallen fully. She looks at the lights of the smaller boats, and feels completely alone.” Here, the fall of the night, and with that of darkness, coincides with the “night” in Nella’s own marriage. She is in one of the bigger, more luxurious boats. However, the small light from those smaller boats speak of liveliness, of warmth, and of love. None of which is present where Nella is, resulting in a complete sense of loneliness.

An important theme to historical fiction based at the same time period is usually sexual repression. Indeed, in The Miniaturist this is an issue that has an impact on all its characters. From the very beginning of the book there is some unmistakable, though indescribable as well, sexual tension. Ultimately, unfulfilled desires reign over all characters. Even though that might not be the main focus to the book, it is there through the whole novel, behind every little accidental noise, or escaped gaze. In the end, it is definitely what has its effects on the whole story.

“Madame says love is best a phantom than reality, better in the chase than caught.”

The Miniaturist is about all the difficulties that come with life in a country as religious as the Netherlands in the 17th century. About the lives of the rich merchants, about selling sugar, and about the mysterious miniatures that suspiciously resemble real people with the greatest of details. However, apart from being a brilliant mystery, The Miniaturist is also about love. Nella comes to Amsterdam ready to love her husband and be loved in return. She often questions herself about the meaning of being a woman, and how much of it is connected to being loved or inlove.  With the progress of the story, it turns out she was not the only character longing for love, but she is the safest one. For the rest of them are quite ready to go great distances for love.