The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

book coverThe death of Nella Oortman’s father left the family in difficult straits, saddled with unexpected debts and a declining standard of living. But the widow finds a suitable match for Nella, in a successful Amsterdam merchant and trader. As he travels extensively, the wedding is a quick affair, and it is a month before he will return to his home. In October of 1686, Nella arrives there, in a very exclusive part of the city. She is greeted by her new husband’s sister, Marin, who makes her feel as welcome as a case of influenza, and who just might make you think of Mrs. Danvers.

As a wedding gift to his 18-year-old bride 39-year old Johannes Brandt acquires for her a cabinet, a kind of doll house that mirrors the Brandt home. Nella engages the services of a miniaturist, a craftsperson, to help fill the spaces. What she receives is far more than she expected, as the pieces reflect a bit too closely persons and events in the family’s life, some frighteningly so. Also, they do not always remain exactly as they were when she’d received them. And they arrive with Delphic messages. Do these tiny constructions predict the future, reflect their owners’ fears and concerns, reveal secrets, tell truths, or offer misdirections? Nella determines to find out who this mysterious miniaturist is and what is behind these small objects.

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Burton says “When writing my hero, Johannes, I had this guy in mind.”

Burton did considerable research to get her 17th century details right.

I have a bibliography as long as my arm. And then there are first-hand resources—maps, paintings, diaries, prices of food, inventories, wills—and the physical city of Amsterdam itself. I first went in 2009, which is when I saw the house in the Rijksmuseum, and then again August 2012 for my birthday – with a long list of questions and locations to visit post-fourth draft. Where did they bury the bodies in the Old Church? How many windows on the front of a gable? How did they winch furniture in? A lot in the book is all historically true in terms of life in the city… – from the Richard Lee interview

Nella’s search and her coming of age occur in a difficult time and place. The Amsterdam of the late 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, is a world financial and military capital, a harsh, unforgiving place, where human failing and difference is not be tolerated, where neighbors are encouraged to spy and report on neighbors, (yes, very much like your office) and where it is always a contest whether the worship of gold or god will hold sway in any given circumstance. The two domains cross paths frequently.

It is this city. It is the years we all spend in an invisible cage, whose bars are made of murderous hypocrisy.

It is a time when being a woman was much more of a challenge than it is today. Marriage, paradoxically, was seen by some as the only way for women to secure any influence over their own lives. But what if a woman wanted something more, something of her own, the opportunity to be the architect of her own fortune, and not submit to a life in a golden cage. Nella may have stepped into a wealthy man’s world, but she must still take care for the many traps that have been laid by a cold society and those jealous of her husband’s success and of her. And there are challenges as well with her marriage, which was not quite what she had bargained for.

I wanted to create women who are not more ‘strongly female’ or ‘stronger than other females’, or ‘strong’ because they are braver than men, or can physically lift more saucepans or anything like that. I just wanted some women who for once are not defined by any other ideal than that they are human. – from the Richard Lee interview

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Images that inspired Nella and Marin

Jessie Burton has written a dazzling first novel. The Miniaturist presents readers with a worthy mystery, and maybe a bit of magic, offering enough twists and turns for a figure skating contest, opening tiny door after tiny door to reveal the secrets of Brandt’s household. This is a look at the Dutch golden age that will resonate with contemporary gender, race, religious and power issues. The author offers just enough imagery to enhance without overwhelming, and breathes life into an array of compelling characters. In addition, Burton paints this world with the eye of a true artist, and does it all in a book that you will not want to put down. It will require no Dutch courage to get through this one. To have crafted The Miniaturist is no small achievement. Jessie Burton has written a book that seems destined to be huge.

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The dollhouse of the real Petronelle Oortman, currently in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Review posted – April 4, 2014
Release date in the UK – July 3, 2014
Release date in the US – August 26, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

One must wonder what London-resident Burton thinks of actors, given how she portrays one here, and given that she has worked as an actress, while toiling as an executive assistant to bring in a few guilders. Here are links to the author’s personal webpage and her Twitter feed. She has a few more historical novels in the works. If she continues writing at this level she will be making history instead of writing about it.

In addition, her Pinterest page is most definitely worth a look

There is a lot of interesting material on Burton in this interview by Richard Lee at the Historical Novel Society site and more here in a piece from The Guardian.

Sugar loaves figure significantly in the story. While I had heard the term Sugarloaf before, my only association with it was with mountains, whether the iconic mound in the Rio de Janeiro harbor, or the host of other mountains across the planet that share the name. Never gave it much thought. But folks with a bit more historical knowledge than me (most of you) would probably know that there was a time when sugar was routinely formed into solid cone shapes for shipping. That Rio hill and its cousins seem a bit more understandably named now.

Here is a link to the wiki entry for sugarloaf, which I found pretty interesting. And another that deals with tools used for handling the stuff. Sweet.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

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