An Incredible Debut Novel
Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, is a terrific mystery ala Jane Eyre set in 17th century Amsterdam.
The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, is a first novel that reads like the masterpiece of a writer at mid-career. Burton was voted the National Book Awards New Writer of the Year 2014, and her novel should be put on your winter reading list immediately. A mystery tinged with romance and tragedy, it’s a book you will not soon forget.
Nella Oortman is only eighteen when her prominent family arranges for her marriage to a wealthy merchant in 17th-century Amsterdam. They are desperate for the money the match will bring and Nella is eager to start a life as an affluent matron. In 1686, Amsterdam is teeming with wealth and trade and Nella is excited for her future.
Almost immediately, her hopes are dashed. She sees little of her handsome, but peripatetic husband, Johannes, and is instead a veritable captive in their neat, canal-side mansion. Her only companions are the impertinent maid, Cornelia, the black manservant, Otto, and Johannes’ stern, unmarried sister, Marin. This odd ménage is little solace for Nella’s romantic disappointments.
The book opens with a photograph of a doll’s house in a cabinet. This is the historic inspiration for the author’s central symbol. It is also the source of the mystery and pain that threaten to swallow up our young heroine. Johannes gives the doll’s house to Neila as a wedding gift. As she begins to furnish it with the help of a reclusive miniaturist, things begin to go awry.
The atmosphere of uncertainty and foreboding in The Miniaturist reminds me of novels like Jane Eyre or Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. A young woman is thrust into a strange household that she cannot begin to understand and is drawn deeper into pain and confusion. It is to Ms. Burton’s credit that her novel seems original and fresh, even when compared to these classics.
I would do the reader a disservice to describe more of the plot, but can say that nothing prepared me for the many unexpected turns this story takes. While I guessed some of the secrets, I was amazed at the power with which the ultimate unraveling hit. The Miniaturist is more than a historical novel; it is a riveting examination of the corruption that irresponsible wealth and hypocrisy visit on society. Its message is as timely today as it would have been in 1687.
Upcoming Book Events:
Friday, December 19 (7:00 PM): Elliot O. Lipchik: A Toast to 12 Poets at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001 http://www.woodlandpattern.org/.