The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

Books May 29, 2015

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I was offered The Minaturist while seeing my old boss in London during her visit for the London Book Fair. She claimed she had read the first few pages and could surmise the kind of book it would be and decided it wasn’t for her. After I started reading it on the train back to Bristol I couldn’t understand what she meant. The prose was very facile and inviting and drew me in instantly. However, I found the characterization of Petronella, our protagonist, to be a little unconvincing when she’s first introduced as a very naïve young girl and then takes on the world like a fully-grown Woman. This was clearly a very deliberate transition but the extent of her worldliness and acceptance of human sexuality seemed like a bit of a stretch for the time period (Calvinistic and austere Amsterdam). I appreciated the 21st century feminism interjected into the sensibilities of the novel, but at times it made it seem a little too-good-to-be-true. However, expressed homophobia would likely be unacceptable in a modern novel as well so I think Jessie Burton’s sensibilities were on point. I think it’s a difficult dance balancing historical accuracy with modern values and I think Jessie Burton did an excellent job of this.

I also never felt satisfied with the story of the “miniaturist” and what her motivations were sending premonitory figurines to Women across Amsterdam, which is never truly resolved despite an interaction with the miniaturist’s father. Nor does Nella have any interactions with her at the end to complete that narrative arc. I feel as though perhaps this was an editorial decision more than one the author chose to elide. Despite my boss’ reservations about the novel, I still enjoyed it a great deal as I think the prose and detailed passages themselves were strong enough to keep me going. I’m really looking forward to what Jessie Burton produces in the future.

I hope it doesn’t sound as though I’m focusing too much on what I think is wrong with this book. I have a tendency to focus on the things I find unconvincing in a book when I think it’s a really excellent and worthy novel. As much as I found Nella to be at times “too-good-to-be-true”, I still felt very engaged and invested in her as a character.

Petronella arrives in Amsterdam, with her parakeet peebo, as a child bride of pedigree from her isolated life out in the countryside. Her new husband Johannes Brandt seems quite emotionally and intimately remote at the beginning until he produces a doll’s house in their front entrance one day. The cabinet is a diminutive replica of their house complete with lavish furnishings and textiles.

The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed. The nine rooms, from the working kitchen, the salon, up to the loft where the peat and firewood are stored away from damp, are perfect replicas.

Petronella feels infantilized by the unexpected gift but proceeds to commission objects from a miniaturist who starts sending eerily predictive miniatures from Nella’s life.

Chairs, a cradle—perhaps the usual things a woman might ask for a replica of her house—but I didn’t. I definitely didn’t. She rips apart the wrapping on the third package, and beneath another layer of blue material is a pair of miniature dogs. Two whippet bodies no larger than moths, covered in silky grey fur, with skulls the size of peas…On one of the dog’s bellies is a small black spot, in exactly the same place as Dhanas.

The city of Amsterdam is in its golden age of trade and commerce and Johannes Brandt is portrayed as an asset to the city as a merchant. He’s sitting on a large amount of sugar belonging to a long-time acquaintance and due to their history is reluctant to move the produce, which inevitably invokes the ire of said acquaintance leading to a disastrous situation.

Petronella has a difficult time navigating her new and puzzling situation in a grand house. Her new sister-in-law Marin proves to be a very austere and impenetrable Woman whom has little patience for her, though their burgeoning relationship creates some tension and interest in the novel (and was perhaps, in my opinion, the most rewarding relationship in the novel). Furthermore, Nella develops compelling relationships with the house’s two servants Otto and Cornelia—unsure and hesitant in her new position. This stands a little more convincing that the very limited interaction she has with her husband, which somehow results in a throbbing sense of compassion and feeling for him, making it a bit difficult to believe.


I thought I’d add some pictures of doll’s houses I took recently. The first is from a shop in Bristol and the second from an estate house in Tipperary.

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Instead of whispering plot points to herself like a creep, Elaine now writes about them.

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