Reviewing Jessie Burton's 'The Miniaturist'
‘Here she is a puppet, a vessel for others to pour their speech. And it is not a man she has married, but a world. Silversmiths, a sister in law, strange acquitences, a house she feels lost in, a smaller one that frightens her. There is ostensibly so much on offer, but Nella feels that something is being taken away.’
Set in 17th century Amsterdam, Burton's novel is an exciting tale that encompasses racial tension, economic dispute, emotional trauma and a touch of magical realism to lead the reader into the chaotic world of its characters.
The Miniaturist follows Nella Brandt as she navigates her way through her marriage to Johannes Brandt, a merchant of a wealthy corner of Amsterdam, and his household. Despite his seemingly cold demeanour, Johannes presents his new wife with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home, which is to be furnished by the mysterious miniaturist.
'From little seeds great flowers grow'.
I cannot express how much I have enjoyed reading this book. It has so many unexpected twists and turns and layers within the plot that makes for such a gripping read. I loved how you are placed straight into the action at the opening of the novel, so that the moment you begin you are knocking on the door to the myserteous house just as Nella is. Burton packs so much thought, drama, tension and emotion into such little space, the novel is mesmerisingly wonderful. She finds a clever balance between each key theme, so that we feel part of a family that is both united and divided as it fights several demons at once.
If you are a fan of Rebecca and Jane Eyre, you will love this book. I quickly discovered a similarity between Rebecca de Winter (Rebecca), the lady in the attic (Jane Eyre) and the Miniaturist, as well as Marin, Johannes' sister, to a certain extent. All these characters seem to hold a sense of mystery and secrecy, whilst governing the actions of the main characters in a haunting manner.
A large part of the novel is its exploration of and commentary on marriage. I found the comments on marriage, particularly from the male characters, incredibly insightful into how people perceived marriage at the time:
‘Many women...see [marriage] as the only possible form of influence a woman may have. Marriage is supposed to harness love, to increase a woman’s power...But does it?’
Throughout the novel, we see Nella drowning in her marriage to Johannes, both socially in her suffering of his mistakes, and economically as he fails to keep his business promises. She is trapped, yet Nella also seems to find a level of freedom in her marriage as the novel continues. I was interested in Nella's view that ‘Whatever it’s true purpose, marriage is certainly a funny thing’, which points to the different marital dynamics of the novel.
‘The only thing you had to do...marry rich, marry well - oh, God, just to be married.’
Burton also opens the debate for the female experience in the 17th century. Whilst women had a level of rights and equality, Marin points out that ‘we can’t own property, we can’t take a case to court. The only thing they think we can do is produce children who then become the property of our husbands.’ One character who both rejects the notion of marriage yet is forced to face the consequence of doing so is Marin, a character I strongly disliked (especially due to the fact she reminded me of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca) yet learned to respect as the novel continued. We see her sharp, icy attitude is a cover for a sense of vulnerability she so desperately wants to hide, the reasons behind which are uncovered in a heartbreaking and devastating situation.
‘But we can’t own property, we can’t take a case to court. The only thing they think we can do is produce children who then become the property of our husbands.’
The novel not only considers marriage and gender but race too, through the character of Otto and his relationship with the Brandt family. Otto's experience in Amsterdam is appalling, as we see blatant disregard and fierce racism directed towards him. His relationship with Cornelia, the maid of the Brandt household, is adorable, acting as a metaphor for inclusivity and acceptance that 17th century Amsterdam failed to uphold.
Burton has the capability to demand a connection between the characters and the reader. I found myself wizzing through this novel, yet I didn't want it to end for fear that I would lose my literary connection to the characters, especially Nella, Cornelia and Johannes. The latter is a truly interesting character, as at first he is portrayed as cold and isolated before we see the emotional challenges he faces and how he is trapped by his secrets.
I wanted to end the review with this quote, as I feel as though it captures both the sentiment of the novel and the times we are facing currently...
‘In suffering we find our truest selves’
Burton, much like the Miniaturist she has created, seems to have a unique capacity to predict and reflect on the current state of times. This is a beautifully written and emotionally wrought novel that I feel so blessed to have experienced. This book deserves to be read.