This was a hauntingly lovely, deeply sad book that remained with me long after I finished it.
Set in the Golden Age of The Netherlands, in Amsterdam in 1868, The Miniaturist tells the story of young Nelle (Petronella) Oortman who arrives on the doorstep of her new husband’s house and, as she crosses the threshold of this tidy, well-ordered home, steps into another world. Her husband, the wealthy, charming Johannes Brandt, lives in a place far removed from Nelle’s sheltered and rather Godly life in the country with her mother and younger siblings. In Amsterdam, the heart of trade and merchant-living in Europe, it’s guilders before God, and sweet Nelle finds the surface splendour and prim facades disguise deeper and curious as well as highly hypocritical undercurrents.
Swept into a life in which she feels she has no place, she is forced to deal with Johannes demanding sister, Marin, whose aloofness is countered only by her maid, Cornelia, who appears to Nelle to not understand the boundaries between employer and servant. A situation that’s made more puzzling by the presence of the coffee-skinned Otto, whose kindness and humanity is, when he leaves the house, disregarded by locals as his exoticness takes over, earning cruel barbs and awful assumptions. Nelle is overwhelmed by all this and prays that love will smooth her path, especially when her husband appears to neglect her.
Then, one day, Johannes buys her a beautiful dolls’-house. It’s a huge cabinet – a replica of their place – that he invites her to furnish. Reluctant at first, Nelle acquiesces and hires the services of a superb miniaturist. But when the pieces she commissions are not only exceptionally fulfilled, but rendered in exquisite and intimate detail, she wonders what is going on. They are so life-like, prophetic, full of significance… Alarmed, she eventually reads the pieces and the messages that accompany them as signs of a life she should either aspire to or as a warning of what’s to come…
Part mystery, part lyrical portrayal of families and relationships and the complex webs we weave and in which we entrap ourselves and others, The Miniaturist is also an examination of social structures and the lengths people will go to in order to protect their place, their role, conceal their secrets, maintain what to some might be lies but to others are the veneers we must never allow to crack. Burton’s understanding and portrayal of the repressed but seething society of Amsterdam of this time is stunning. Her use of the doll’s house as an analogy for what goes on behind other closed doors, of how we can be fashioned in another’s image, moulded to an ideal, is very clever. I remember seeing these dolls’ houses at the Rikjs Museum when I lived in The Netherlands and thought them amazing. Their use here is unique and eerie. Unlike the life-like dolls made for Nelle and which she places inside her doll’s house, the characters in Burton’s real Dutch houses that abut each other, line the canals and share the repressive joys of community, come to life in ways that are surprising, distressing, utterly gripping and heart-wrenching.
I found this book hard to put down and am not surprised by the accolades it has received. Terrific.