The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Nella Oortman has married a man apart, though she does not yet know it. Her diffident welcome to wealthy Amsterdam is compounded by the arrival of her wedding present: a great miniature house, to be furnished by the artist of her choice. When the mysterious miniaturist enters the fold, Nella’s sense of knowing and unknowing is forever changed.
Jessie Burton’s first work is a jewel of sumptuous fantasy. The characters are meticulously and lovingly crafted, each with a history that you come to know intimately. She has the extraordinary ability to draw the reader in to the very nooks and crannies of her imagination, before throwing them out with a twist and a sharp look.
What is rather special is the sense of recognition the reader feels at this distant Dutch world – it’s as if you know this place and these people, intimately and without ceremony. What is yet more extraordinary is that Burton has devised characters with so many sides, faults and honest traits that remain out of reach until the end. Polished storytelling doesn’t shy away from what would have been, and there’s a rawness and blunt sadness that unfurls on every page of Amsterdam. Inexplicably tragic, and yet full of life, Nella’s sister-in-law Marin is a stormforce of a woman, while Nella herself is frustratingly naïve about the ambiguous, elusive power of the miniaturist. It’s not just what Burton writes, it’s what she leaves unwritten that creates an atmosphere so compelling. Closeted and even unnerving at moments, the tension builds with an almost audible crescendo.
The descriptive power surrounding every furnishing, element of the weather and imperceptible moment makes this reading experience like to a capsule, suspended in time. It’s both marvellous and deeply rooted at once, drawing on big themes of sexuality, race, gender and money with grace. It captures the historical moment in a way so much imaginative fiction fails to do, and the depth and breadth of detail is astounding. This isn’t just reading, it’s transportation into a damask, weighted world. This is historical fiction that hits the buff’s mark.
Of its time, before and beyond it, The Miniaturist is a treasure, a triumph of wit, words and wonder. It reveals so little of itself at once that the reader becomes Nella, seeing things that are not meant to be seen and understanding tricks of the light and mind. This exquisitely formed debut is a reminder of the inextinguishable power of great literature to build around you an utterly magical, believable world.
The Miniaturist is published by Picador at the hardback price of £12.99, for further information visit here.