Friday, 2 October 2015

Review | The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

by Jessie Burton

My Rating: 

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?

I'm jumping onto this bandwagon a little late, I know. Last year this book was everywhere - everywhere - and though it piqued my interest with that gorgeous cover, somehow I never found myself picking it up. I've always been wary of hype (perhaps I was a hipster in a past life) but I don't think it was the hype surrounding this book that put me off it, because I love historical fiction and I especially love historical fiction that isn't set in the usual period or country; before I read this I'd never read a book set in Amsterdam, and I'd certainly never read historical fiction set in Amsterdam. I actually know very, very little about the history of the The Netherlands, so I was very intrigued to read a book set in a time and place I know so little about.

If this is to be my introduction to Amsterdam, it was a wonderful one. In terms of setting, this is one of the best novels, historical or otherwise, I have ever read; Burton brings 17th century Amsterdam to life so vividly it felt like I was there, like I was walking through the crowded streets with Nella on one side and Cornelia on the other, and when I go to Amsterdam - whenever that may be - I'm going to be surprised when I don't go back in time. Not once did this feel like a history book, because Burton has that wonderful talent for seamlessly weaving information and world building into her narrative without making the story seem clunky or dry.

Burton's writing is probably my favourite thing about this book. That this is her debut novel is astounding, because her writing is so sumptuous and rich and yet so very easy to read; when I started reading The Miniaturist, not entirely sure if I was in the mood for it, I soon found I'd breezed through the first third of it in about an hour and a half - it's so readable! If she can manage this kind of language, this kind of stunning craftsmanship, in her debut novel, then I am very, very excited about what she might bring out next.

As I've mentioned in reviews before, it's characters that make a book for me; if Burton had written beautifully about characters I didn't care about I wouldn't have liked the book, no matter how lovely her sentences are. Characters are just too important to me. Luckily I needn't have worried here; Burton has one of those rare talents for giving each of her side characters as much history and agency as her protagonist, perhaps even more so! Nella may be our protagonist, but this is not Nella's story; this is how Nella wades through everyone else's stories. In fact if I wanted to describe this story in simple terms, I'd call it a coming of age novel. I finished this novel feeling that Nella's story wasn't over, but rather that it was only just beginning.

I particularly loved Marin, Nella's stern and superior sister-in-law, who is wonderfully written and so very real, but each of the other characters, even the ones I didn't like, were written remarkably well. Like Sarah Waters, Burton writes people, not characters.

So I've sang this novel's praises, but I couldn't give it five stars. Maybe I'm just feeling particularly critical, because I did love this novel and there's no denying that it's an astonishing debut, but there were a few questions left unanswered; I don't always mind unanswered questions, but the ending of this book left me just the tiniest bit disappointed. The teensiest tiniest bit. It's still a remarkable novel, and one that I highly recommend checking out if it's on your radar!


  1. Great review Jess! I almost bought this the other day, but then put it back because I haven't had too much reading time lately, and don't want my TBR to get out of control. Now I'm regretting it! I will have to pick this book up in my next book buying excursion. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks, Mallory! I feel your pain - I own way too many unread books - but I definitely recommend picking this up when you next have the chance because it's a really stunning debut. :)

  2. Mmm... I think you're not the first person saying that the end of this novel is a bit disappointing. I'm really intrigued about this book (the cover, the plot, the setting... everything calls my attention). However, endings are so important for me. I've read books that seemed to me very boring and dense at the beginning, but if they had a brilliant ending then automatically became favourite ones. On the other hands, books that were really good but left me a 'bad taste' when I finished I wouldn't read them again...

    1. If it helps, it's not a bad ending at all - when I say I was disappointed, I really do mean only the smallest amount, and I don't think the ending ruins the book. I recommend reading this the next time you have the chance to! :)