English author Jessie Burton’s first novel, ‘The Miniaturist’ is a very fine debut. There has been much buzz about its release this year, and with endorsements by Hannah Kent and S J Watson on the cover, expectation was high. The novel, set in 1686 in Amsterdam, and following the early days of Nella Oortman’s marriage into the wealthy trading family of the Brandts, very much reminded me of Tracy Chevalier’s novels. While not quite as deft as Chevalier’s style, Burton comes close nonetheless, and she has spun an interesting modern tale whilst remaining true to the cultural conventions of the time in which she is writing. Nella is neither a heroic feminist crusader, nor a naive country bumpkin whose eyes are opened by the city: she is rather a thoughtful and calm protagonist, quietly observing the complex relations of the household she has married into, and eventually taking control as events turn for the worse in the novel’s climax. Burton allows contemporary issues to enhance the themes in her novel by portraying Nella’s husband, Johannes Brandt, to be a man of the world: he allows his household certain liberties, his adored black manservant Otto comes and goes as he pleases, his maid Cornelia is straight-talking and frank and his tall and clever unmarried sister Marin advises him in trade. Nella is intrigued by the Brandts and their servants rather than shocked, but not so the people of Amsterdam as described when Otto leads the house through the city to church:
‘Though people continue to goggle, no-one else offers commentary. Nella notices how they look at Marin too. Unusually tall for a woman, with her long neck and head held high, Marin is like a figurehead on the bow of a ship, leaving waves of turning faces in her wake’.
Nella and Johannes’ relationship takes a fairly well trodden narrative path, but Burton doesn’t sensationalise the exploration of their relationship and the narrative arc avoids cliché. What sets this novel apart is the element of mystery that gives the novel its title. Johannes gives his new bride the gift of a cabinet sized dolls house, an identical model of their own home but empty for Nella to fill and entertain herself during his absences. Nella is nonplussed but in a fit of spite towards her frugal and waspish sister in law, Nella orders a ‘miniaturist’ advertised in the local trading papers to make her some furniture for the house. What transpires is a number of packages arriving with exact models of people and objects in the house, of which the miniaturist should have no knowledge. Notes with cryptic messages are wrapped around the fine little pieces and Nella embarks upon a cat and mouse chase trying to pin down this enigmatic and all knowing craftsperson:
‘Someone has peered into Nella’s life and thrown her off centre. If these items aren’t sent in error, then the cradle is a mock to her unvisited marriage bed and what’s beginning to feel as though it’s an eternal virginity. What sort of person would dare such impertinence? The dogs, so particular; the chairs, so exact – the cradle, so suggestive – it’s like the miniaturist has a perfect, private view’.
Burton’s style is straightforward but confident. Her characters are sympathetically drawn, and the dialogue is well executed in that Burton doesn’t embellish or over-formalise the language. The plot may have been spun out a little too long but the mystery of the miniaturist’s identity is interesting enough to compel the reader forward. Burton no doubt will have an audience eagerly waiting for a second showing after this assured start.