Thu, 10 May 2018
The debut work of Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist was published in 2014 to great acclaim. It received rave reviews and went straight to the top of the bestseller list. And so it was with high anticipation that I approached the book, but I was to be rather let down.
The story begins with the arrival of innocent Nella Oortman at the home of her new husband Johannes Brandt. The household is run by his austere sister Marin and two faithful servants Cornelia and Otto, the latter who is notorious locally simply because he is black. So far so good. Johannes is not there to meet her and Marin has a creepy Mrs Danvers-like way about her.
When he does eventually arrive, Johannes does not appear to be the slightest bit interested in his new bride much to her dismay – shades of Mr Rochester? I couldn’t help myself, in trying to big this book up, I kept looking for classic literary analogies.
When he presents Nella with a doll’s house, a replica of the one they are in, she is at first enchanted, but also perplexed. When small packages start arriving containing lifelike and accurate dolls and furnishings, and seeming to predict real events, she becomes more than a little unnerved.
Oh good, I thought, this is some kind of Gothic horror and it’s going to get creepy. But it didn’t...
For me, The Miniaturist was a mishmash of half-promised intrigue, a very strange collection of characters and, at the heart of it, young Nella, who was quite frankly a bit of a nellie.
The book is supposed to be an insight into the merchant classes of 17th-century Amsterdam, but it could have been anywhere. Apart from the occasional mention of the burgomasters and the warehouses full of sugar, I didn’t really get a sense of the dealings and what life was really like.
Johannes’ dark secret was no great revelation, Marin seemed to change with the wind – sometimes kindly towards Nella, at other times brutally harsh. And, of, course Marin had a secret too, which, when revealed, was then just brushed aside – and
actually would have made an interesting tale going forward.
The loyalty of Nella, and the other servants, to Johannes was fairly incomprehensible and as for the eponymous miniaturist, what was the point? We never found out who she was or why she had the power she seemed to wield.
I know I am going against the general praise for this debut novel, but I was not impressed and for me The Miniaturist was a disappointment.