Books · Reviews

REVIEW: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true.

As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household she realises the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands – but does she plan to save or destroy them?

Jessie Burton’s debut novel hooked me from the start, or rather, the end.

The Miniaturist begins with a curious prologue set in 1687 – a funeral, gossipy neighbours, a silent figure moving through a mostly empty church, the presenting of a strange gift, and a symbolic focus on a starling trapped in the rafters. It is a creepily evocative beginning that, unfortunately, I forgot about along the way.

I found that Burton is a marvellous story-teller. I was hanging on her every word. She has a detailed way with words that is both tense and bewitching – I was desperate to know what happened next.

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The characters are realistic enough for my liking. They have contradictions and hypocrisies like you or me which makes their motivations seem reasonable. Burton’s main character of Petronella Oortman learns the secrets of the Brandt household as the readers do – we are firmly on this journey with her. Like Nella, I found myself wanting to know more about her distant husband Johannes and the Miniaturist.

Burton wound the secrets of the Brandt household like a rope into a tight knot. As we read on, the knot becomes looser and looser – it almost reads like a detective novel. I could never be sure who was at the centre of this knot of a plot. Was it Johannes? Was it Nella’s sister-in-law Marin? Was it the Miniaturist? Or was it Burton herself as she seemingly couldn’t tie one character to the events of her layered plot?

Uncomfortable events and subject matters are tackled expertly by Burton; she does not shy away from the horrific truth of religious 1600s attitudes towards people who are different/don’t conform to societal norms. It’s a truth that can still be applied to today. As such, I found comments and actions by other characters to be incredibly uneasy. I was moved to tears by Burton’s impeccable narrative.

The book is not without its faults however.

There were times where Burton felt as though she couldn’t decide if she wanted to write in third or first person. Whilst the story is told in third person, Burton slips into a style of writing that would feel more at home in a first person narrative – this would trip me up as I read and I found myself needing to re-read sentences. As a debut novel, I can mostly overlook this.

The most striking fault I found with The Miniaturist was its ending. Remember that knot of rope I compared the plot to? By the end of the book, that rope was limp and frayed.

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Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

I was left with many questions after closing the back cover. What happened to the other characters? How did certain characters end up together like that? ItΒ was so confused, important plots/characters left so alone and seemingly forgotten that the book felt unfinished. I would gladly read another 400 pages to understand more about the plot and the characters’ minds, especially that of Johannes!

There is no denying that I learned a lot about the character’s of the Brandt household, however, there was only one character I wanted to learn about. The Miniaturist herself. Sadly, I felt rather abandoned by her and Burton, and I wondered what even was the point of the Miniaturist in the first place? If the emphasis had not been on the Miniaturist in the title and blurb, then perhaps I wouldn’t be so bothered by the weak and threadbare revelation about her that eventually came.

The Miniaturist is everything I love in a book: love, betrayal, history, corruption, mystery, danger and societal critiques. If I had not been left confused and wanting by the end of this book, I would’ve happily given it 5/5 stars. Instead, I leave it with a rating of 4/5 stars and an eagerness to read it again in the near future.

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