Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is one of those widely acclaimed debut novels that seems to follow you around, even before you’ve read it you see the cover in bus stops, catch the title in magazines and catch the name standing out in strangers conversations. But is there anything more to the hype than a clever marketing campaign?
At first glance, the story has all the elements of a Gothic pastiche: a young bride turns up at her new husband’s house and finds herself at the mercy of his cold, maiden sister with a servant who openly treats her in a disrespectful way. Alone and isolated (in a room bedecked with grizzly artwork depicting meat and game birds no less), she is insulted when her husband buys her a child’s dollhouse to occupy her but soon finds that there is more to this than meets the eye. In itself, not massively compelling.
To reduce the story to this rough plot overview though, would be to do the novel and the author a massive disservice. I think that part of Jessie Burton’s talent is that she sets up the reader’s expectations for a particular kind of plot then through subtle misdirection surprises the reader with the course of events that follows, keeping you only half a step ahead of Nella as she encounters the wonders and horrors of her new life in Amsterdam and making her one of the most credible naïve brides in literature.
The history of 17th century Amsterdam been well researched and certainly well rendered, and the setting is a masterstroke for anyone who thinks of Amsterdam as a shorthand for liberalism and tolerance. While the miniaturist remains shadowy, the city comes to the fore as a contradictory, cruelly capricious character – the home to a society simultaneously obsessed with trade and piety, where neighbour watches neighbour to exert a pervasive social control, a fearful puppet master in its own right.
Though the novel isn’t perfect, it is very, very good and like all good novels it leaves you with questions. Why does the miniaturist come to the church in the first chapter? Why did they want to leave the miniature-miniature there? And most of all, what has compelled such an astute student of human behaviour to hold a mirror up to their subjects lives when the emotional repercussions of their art seem to shake them too?