In a sad turn of events, its been absolutely ages since I’ve felt utterly enthralled by a book. With a far-too-busy reading schedule of lacklustre book group choices and dull ARCs, I’d really begun to wonder whether the art of telling a cracking good yarn had got lost along the way somewhere. Last week, I finally experienced that wonderful feeling of wanting to go to bed that little bit earlier so I could leap back into my other, ‘literary’ life and find out what happens next.
So, without further ado, I thank you Jessie Burton for restoring the faith and keeping me thoroughly happy and entertained for an entire week! Historical fiction is becoming my slightly lazy, go-to genre that I arrive at when I need a quick literary fix. Burton’s début offering, The Miniaturist (widely hyped up in the press) did not disappoint. For once, yes, you can allow yourself be drawn in…
Petronella (‘Nella’) Oortman is growing up. Now Petronella Brandt, married to wealthy Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt, we follow close on her heels as she arrives at her new home; a luxurious mansion on the Herengracht canal. The welcome she receives from her new husband and adoptive family is less than perfect. With Johannes largely absent, leaving the marital bed cold, his sister, Marin, frosty and sanctimonious and the servants unusually brazen, Nella feels deeply unwelcome and adrift in her draughty new abode.
In a gesture that his new wife interprets badly as a mockery of her young age and inexperience, Johannes buys her a dolls’ house. Exquisitely carved, encased in tortoiseshell and inlaid with pewter, the house is, quite spookily, an exact replica of the Herengracht mansion. Despite this slight on her maturity, Nella chooses to treat the house as a mockery herself, ordering items from a mysterious miniaturist in the city to provoke her new sister-in-law. As beautiful items begin to arrive unasked for, with each object and doll more spookily intrusive and prophetic than the last, Nella soon realises that all is not as it seems in this outwardly enviable life as a merchant’s wife.
I really needed this book to kick me sharply out of the reading (and blog-writing) funk and laziness that I’ve found myself in of late; common for me at this time of year when the sun comes out and life inevitably starts to happen. (I even forgot about Paris in July!) Like all truly superb historical fiction, Burton is heavy on the sumptuous domestic detail, bringing the contrasts between the grimy, dangerous Amsterdam streets and political arena and the safety of her new home right into my own living room. Add the edge of some subversive twists and turns and the touch of magic the miniaturist lends the story, then we have something very special indeed. Although intrigued, like his sister Marin, by Johannes adventures across the waves, Burton is wise not to spread her fledgling talents too thinly, focusing instead on the dramas unfolding back home.
My only reluctant criticism of this book, which has stood up to the hype well and fully merits it’s rather marvellous display in Waterstones’ window (i.e. a big wooden house with books inside!), would be the last few chapters, where I found conclusions sometimes rushed and often incomplete. Are these the trappings every new author faces when caught up their own great story? Some characters are clumsily welcomed back into the fold, presumably to afford a logical ending, whereas one nameless, yet crucial, figure disappears altogether, with no satisfying conclusion reached at all about their whereabouts.
Nitpicking aside, clumsy endings did not spoil the impression The Miniaturist left on me, walking along in a lovely Dutch daze for a good couple of days afterwards. Like most excellent stories, Burton is inspired by real life. Petronella Oortman was the name of a real noblewoman, whose spectacular dolls’ house (see painting above) is very real indeed and now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to be loved and admired by all. Like a few talented of authors of late (Hannah Kent, Jane Harris…) Burton presents a portrait in time of outwardly ordinary yet inherently strong women. The many dangers women faced; from pregnancy to the obscurity of marriage are addressed here, including the fate of those on the very margins of conventionality.