Book Review | The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton has been on my To Be Read pile since I read her second novel, The Muse, at the beginning of this year. On finding out that The Miniaturist was being turned into a two-part BBC adaptation starting on Boxing Day, I knew I had to read it before Christmas. So I began and ended 2017 reading Jessie Burton’s books and I’m only sad I can’t do the same next year – fingers crossed for a new one in 2018! 

When The Miniaturist was published in 2014 it was hugely successful so I was slightly apprehensive that it wouldn’t live up to the “hype”, but I wasn’t disappointed. Set in 1686 in Amsterdam at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, we meet eighteen year old Petronella Oortman as she arrives at the house of her new husband and wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, to start her life as his wife. However, married life isn’t what she hoped for. More than twenty years her senior, Johannes is very distant and, when he’s not locked in his study, he’s away travelling the world for work. She also has to contend with Marin, her unmarried sister-in-law, who gives Nella a frosty reception; reluctant to allow her to run the household and fulfil her “purpose” as a wife.

As a wedding gift and distraction, Johannes gives Nella a cabinet-sized replica of their home to furnish. When she finds a skilled miniaturist to assist with her project, she is unsettled by how their creations ring eerily true and the cryptic notes that accompany them. As Nella endeavours to discover the truth behind the mysterious miniaturist, the secrets of the house and its inhabitants steadily unravel with tragic consequences.

Rich in detail and meticulously researched, Jessie Burton artistically paints a stunning portrait of seventeenth century Amsterdam; a city of merchants motivated by money and materialism. Nella has to weave in and out of traps laid by society members who are jealous of her husband’s success. Tension bubbles under the surface as a power struggle and political games play out between Johannes and his scheming clients, the Meermans.

It was also a time when being a woman was very hard. Two strong female characters, Nella and Marin’s contrasting circumstances illustrate how marriage was the only way to obtain security, making it nearly impossible for a woman to be the architect of her own fortune.

The narrative is in the third person but told solely through Nella’s eyes, allowing us to piece together snippets of information with her as she listens at doors and spies through keyholes to unravel long-hidden secrets. We also gradually get to know the complex and compelling cast of characters as she does, including Cordelia, the Brandt’s loyal maid and Otto, an African manservant brought home by Johannes. Nella herself is innocent yet not naïve, principled, independent and determined. By witnessing everything from Nella’s perspective, you feel like you’ve been on a journey with her as she develops and grows in confidence throughout the novel.

Full of intrigue and dark secrets, The Miniaturist is as beautifully crafted as Nella’s doll’s house and its contents. From the bitter cold of the harsh Dutch winter to the intense, claustrophobic atmosphere in the Brandt household as secrets upon secrets are discovered, Jessie Burton’s prose is exquisite and seamlessly transports us to seventeenth century Amsterdam. The Miniaturist is a dazzling debut and very much deserving of the high-praise it has received – I can’t wait to watch the BBC adaptation this Christmas.

Let me know your thoughts on The Miniaturist in the comments below if you’ve read it – I’m off to book a ticket to Amsterdam!