Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Miniaturist.
Set in 1886 Amsterdam, this riveting novel is an extraordinary journey behind a façade wherein “the austerity and oppressiveness of Calvinism converge with an obsession of wealth and acquisition.” Eighteen-year-old Petronella Oortman arrives on the doorstep of her new home as wife of Johannes Brandt, a well-heeled merchant trader. Her marriage but a formality and yet to be consummated, Nella has left a rural community to immerse herself in an unfamiliar environment in a rigid, ever-watchful community of righteous citizens boastful of their wealthy city and rigorous moral standards. When the door of this new home on the Herengracht Canal closes behind her, Nella faces the daunting challenge ahead: an aloof, albeit gentlemanly husband; sister-in-law Marin, cold, disdainful and hardly inclined to kindness towards this usurper; too-familiar maid Cornelia; and, most shocking, Johannes’ manservant Otto, the first dark-skinned man Nella has ever seen, his African visage an anomaly in an intolerant culture that assumes whiteness is akin to godliness.
Without the warmth of familial acceptance or her husband’s presence in her marital bed, Nella treads lightly, intimidated by Marin, gradually warming to the garrulous Cornelia and heartened by thoughtful conversations with Otto, who is clearly essential to the household, not a slave but an employee. Johannes’ gift of a cabinet-sized replica of the grand townhouse they inhabit captures Nella’s imagination and comforts her in the lonely hours of marriage to a man who “speaks in all tongues but that of love.” Marin remains distant, inscrutable, a long-standing struggle between brother and sister impossible for Nella to untangle, reducing her to listening behind closed doors or peering through keyholes to learn the secrets of this merchant family. Marin proves most intriguing, her austerity belied by suggestions of hidden passion; Johannes is distant, kindly, yet nightly retreating to his study or office.
Things change when Nella hires a miniaturist to fashion a few items for her cabinet-house, the objects so cunning, so perfect that she is frightened by their preciseness, their accuracy. How does the miniaturist know such details? Both fascinated and repelled, she vacillates between amazement at the objects’ perfection and intrusiveness as more items arrive that she’s only thought of ordering. Helpless to meet with the artist or to stop the arrival of the tiny packages, Nella adds them to dollhouse that mirrors one she is only beginning to comprehend with all its flaws and purposeful duplicities. Burton seduces the reader along with her protagonist, slowly opening a door to a closed, hypocritical society with strict moral codes and extreme punishments for those deemed to have broken the rules. What appears at first a cold, sterile environment to a frightened bride in fact roils with secret passions and the danger of exposure to scandal. Ultimately, events threaten to spill beyond the boundaries of the household walls.
Unsure whether the miniaturist is prescient guide or sorcerer, Nella grows increasingly troubled by the objects as events unfold. Terrible secrets are revealed to threaten Nella’s marriage, Johannes’ ability to pursue his trade and Marina’s iron-fisted control of a life of silent rebellion. Inside the cabinet-sized house and inside the townhouse, the issues grow ever more dangerous. Nella is stunned, heartbroken and eventually complicit as she understands how much this world has become her safe harbor in a society that shows a pristine face to others while seething with sinfulness. Burton’s prose is as lovely and her characters as complicated as the miniatures in Nella’s dollhouse, holding the secrets of tightly bound hearts yearning for expression. This exquisite novel presents a miniature of the human struggle sparkling with insight, compassion and courage.