REVIEW: The Miniaturist

Rating: 5/5

400 pages

Ecco Press; 2014

Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam–a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion–a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

“There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . .”

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand–and fear–the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

This is a type of book that that grips you from the first page and then proceeds to take you on a whirlwind journey featuring twists that will make you gasp out loud. It doesn’t end with the turning of the final page; you’ll probably sit in stunned silence for a while before frantically searching for additional works by the author.

Jessie Burton weaves a deft story that reveals the complex, and sometimes messy, condition known as human nature by drawing us into her dollhouse – both literally and figuratively.

The author adds wonderful layers of realism of life and culture in 17th century Amsterdam based on extensive research that makes the novel feel part story and part history lesson. At the centre of everything is a dollhouse gifted to Nella by Johannes months into a marriage marred by strains and secrets. Once the pieces Nella commissions a miniaturist to create begin arriving to the house, it thrusts the 17 year old into a seemingly supernatural situation as each piece reveals something or hints towards something hidden just beneath the surface.

There will be moments when Burton stretches “truth in fiction” to new, unbelievable levels, such as giving Nella wisdom and experience that don’t match her experience as a naive peasant girl, but any encouters can be forgiven in the overall thrill of racing alongside Nella as she encounters twists and unexpected situations bursting with the sights and sounds of the Dutch Golden Age.

The Miniaturist has also been turned into a mini-series that will delight fans of the novel and fans of rich, immersive visual stories alike.

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