The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
This book probably says a lot about the modern publishing industry. Apparently, eleven publishers competed for the rights to publish Ms Burton’s magnum opus and it was one of the most hyped books in 2014. The reading public responded by making it the biggest selling debut novel since the bane of all charity shops that is Fifty Shades Of.
So having commoditised the work for us, we should legitimately ask, was the product up to expectation? As a novel I thought the book was unexceptional – it was slow to start and whilst it is an engaging story once it gets going its protagonist is frankly unbelievable.
The book is set in 17th century Amsterdam when the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, was at the peak of its powers and influence. Johannes Brandt is a successful merchant, living on Amsterdam’s Herengracht in a stately and beautiful house with his sister and their two servants, one of whom is of colour (natch). Brandt is persuaded that he needs a wife by his sister and the poor naif country girl who is Nella Oortman is chosen. The first time Nella meets her hubby is at the marriage ceremony in her rural home town of Assendelft and then is left to make her way a month later, with her trunk and pet parakeet, to set up her marital home.
Johannes is cool towards his wife – if the reader hadn’t worked out Brandt’s proclivities by this point then the clunking plotting and signposting will have seemed the epitome of subtlety. Anyway, and I won’t spoil the story, to pacify the somewhat frustrated and disappointed Nella, Brandt buys her a miniature model of their house. From time to time she receives parcels from a miniaturist whom she engaged containing items that can populate her house but which are spookily accurate and revelatory of the fates in store for the household.
Although the model house gets smashed up in the book, you can see the original in the Rijksmuseum with its tortoiseshell and pewter inlay. It is attributed to a French craftsman living in Amsterdam and was owned by the real Petronella Oortman who was married to the merchant, Johannes Brandt.
The fascination, I’m sure, for the novelist with the puritanical Dutch way of life at the time is the opportunity it offers to compare and contrast the conventional public life where God comes first with the hypocritical private life where Mammon and pleasure comes first. And Burton uses a fairly weighty sledgehammer to make this point.
My principal problem with the book is that Nella Oortmann is not a believable character. She has come from the dullest of dullest of backwaters which has not been touched by any new ideas that find their way to the world’s trading centres. She herself says that Otto, the servant of colour, would have been stared at even more so in Assendelft because the residents haven’t seen anyone like him before. And yet, for some reason we are to believe that Nell has all the attitudes of a 21st century bleeding heart liberal as she wrestles to make sense of the catalogue of disasters that besets her and her household. It is this logical inconsistency that ultimately derails the book as a work of art.
Perhaps I’m being too picky. Read the book and see what you think.