This book found it's way into my bag mere minutes after handing in my MA dissertation as I browsed a book shop before catching the train back home. Apparently a back unbent from a heavy bag of books feels far too odd, so out came my final assignment and in went The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.
I'm not going to lie, I was drawn to this book by the beautiful cover. I mean, look at it! A patchwork of seventeenth century illustrations is the way to my heart, and the context of contemporary historical writing was just what I needed to ease me out of period fiction. After four years of eighteenth century texts I need to be weened off corsets, awkward engagements and embroidered pillows!
The story surrounds Petronella Brandt, a recently married girl of 18 who moves from the country and it's pastoral rhythm of life to the bustling city of Amsterdam - a port to the world filling the pockets of it's residents. Nella welcomes being the mistress of her own home, however a cold reception in a household with a distant husband leaves her feeling burdensome to those around her. This all changes when Johannes gifts his young wife a huge, scale-version of their own townhouse, complete with miniature oil paintings and gilded with the finest materials. Nella engages the services of a miniaturist to furnish the house, however with each new, startlingly accurate gift of tiny proportions comes a foreboding sense that the miniaturist knows much more about Nella's life than even Nella knows herself.
The story has so many twists and turns that I wouldn't dare spoil it for you. It's the first novel I've read in a long time that kept me in the dark all the way to the end. Jessie Burton has an excellent eye for detail - perhaps her research into miniatures helped with that! The cold that seeps into the walls of Brandt's house is so vivid you can almost feel it's dampness on your skin. A battle between coldness and warmth pervades the book and is featured symbolically through the novel's relationship dynamics.
The story at the end isn't the story I expected at the beginning. The miniature house, a feature given huge precedence at the beginning of the novel is in fact secondary to a careful, intimate character progression that dwarfs the house in comparison. It is easy to get caught up in historical context (especially in a novel such as Tulip Fever, also set in 17th Century Amsterdam), to constantly ask the question 'would that happen?!'. But then again, how could we possibly judge how a girl like Petronella Brandt would react if every thread of her previous life was cut away and replaced with an accelerated necessity for maturity that her very future depends on?
The Miniaturist is a dolls house in and of itself. There is a real dolls house - an exact replica of the real Petronella Oortman's marital home - on display in the Rijksmuseum dated 1686. The museum provided the empty house, and Jessie Burton has filled it with her narrative.
The novel is a tantalising coming-of-age story that delves beneath the surface of the seventeenth century's Age of Devotion, and is a page turner through and through.
Despite being a little confused as to which plot line was dominant, I'd give this novel a 7/10. Well worth a read, to cut a long story short!