Monday, May 19, 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014)

It's 1686 and 18-year-old Petronella Brandt (nee Oortman) has arrived in Amsterdam to join her new rich merchant husband Johannes. Nella's father recently died, leaving her family penniless and her with no options but to marry to survive. The marriage was arranged by Nella's mother and Johannes' sister Marin and Nella knows little of her husband or the life she is to live away from her family.

As days pass, Nella is lost and lonely in her new environment. Her sister-in-law Marin is cold and unfriendly, outwardly pious and self-flagellating but behind closed doors revelling in luxury. Johanne's manservant Otto is the first black man Nella has ever seen and she is fascinated by the sight of him and the colour of his skin. The maid Cordelia is irreverent and familiar like no servant Nella has ever known. Johannes is often absent and when he is in the house, distant and distracted. Nella waits night after night for the marital visit from him that she both dreads and looks forward to, but morning after morning she wakes alone. After two weeks of overhearing heated whispered conversations that she doesn't understand, Johanne arrives home with a wedding gift for Nella: a perfect miniature replica of their house. She writes to a miniaturist requesting items to fill it and, in doing so, inspires change within the house, for the miniatures that arrive demonstrate a knowledge of the events within the Brandt household that is both chilling and, for Nella, entrancing.

At its centre, this is a novel about women and the limits that are placed on them by society. Each of the three women who live in this house - Nella, Marin and Cordelia - are restricted in terms of their labour and the value its placed on it. Nella questions whether it is possible to be a real woman without bearing children while Marin sees marriage as a prison without escape. For Cordelia, being saved from an orphanage means constant backbreaking labour, where even "days off" involve cooking for the household. Beyond these three women dances the figure of eponymous Miniaturist: a female artisan working at a time where it is forbidden to apprentice women who lives alone in a city where the only women who do so are whores and widows.

The historical detail in this book is fascinating. It does start off quite slowly but once the miniatures start appearing, the narrative really starts to move. It opens a window to another time and place, which is what good novels should do. Three and a half stars.

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