“Everything man sees he takes for a toy.”
It’s the autumn of 1686 and eighteen year old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of a wealthy merchant she’s met just once, on their wedding day. Her husband, Johannes Brandt, seems largely indifferent to her presence and she finds her new home gloomy and cold, full of strange noises at night and whisperings at keyholes. As a conciliatory gift her husband has bought her an expensive cabinet, a sort of dolls house, with nine compartments representing the various rooms in the Brandt home. Although Nella’s a little resentful at first she soon writes to a miniaturist on the other side of the city, commissioning her to produce the tiny furniture and figurines needed to decorate the cabinet. Soon the miniaturist is sending her items she hasn’t asked for, some that reflect real life in the Brandt home, others that predict events that haven’t yet happened. As she gets to know her new family better, Nella starts to wonder whether the miniaturist is a prophet, a spy or the architect of their destruction.
I liked this book. A lot. It’s beautifully written and you can tell that every sentence has been carefully crafted, almost like the miniatures themselves. Burton is brilliant at evoking a stiflingly oppressive atmosphere so you can feel the pressure mounting, the threats lurking everywhere. This is true of the Brandt home – where Johannes and his spinster sister Marin are concealing dangerous secrets from the outside world – and Amsterdam itself. The city here is a mix of contrasts. It’s the prosperous and metropolitan centre of a vast trading empire, but it’s also in the grip of a puritanical regime that threatens those who don’t conform. In the midst of this the Brandts are trying to cling to their own personal freedom.
Nella is an engaging central character and I enjoyed her transformation from a naïve and eager to please teenager into a woman who assumes control of their precarious situation. I wasn’t always convinced by her willing acceptance of events and I wondered if she perhaps felt more like a modern teenager than a seventeenth century one. But that’s a small point. I loved Marin though. As Johannes unmarried, sharp tongued sister she’s flawed, high minded, intelligent and fiercely protective of her independence. Like Nella I found myself grateful for those rare moments of intimacy between them, when you felt like they could learn to respect each other as sisters under less fraught circumstances. She’s a complex but fascinating character.
I wasn’t surprised by all the twists and turns of the plot – some of them you can see coming – but that didn’t make it any less suspenseful. I did think, though, that in the melodrama of the second half the story of the miniaturist got a little lost. I like to think that I don’t really need a book to answer all my questions – a little open endedness can be a good thing – but I was disappointed not to find out more about the miniaturist. I started to wonder what purpose she’d really served and whether Nella’s imagination had just got a bit carried away with her. Maybe it was all in her head?
I really enjoyed The Miniaturist. It’s a gripping and beautifully written story about revenge, freedom, greed and love. I can see that it divided opinion on GoodReads and Amazon but I would definitely recommend reading it for yourself so you can make your own mind up.