The Miniaturist, Jesse Burton

It is Sunday night.

Today was warm, sunny, a little humid on the south western coast of England. And yet, standing in that sun, warmed by it, with this book open I am transported to a frozen canal sides of Amsterdam over the winter of 1686.

And, as I write this, I’d love an olie-koecken. Or gingerbread, even in the forbidden shape of a person.

Such is the evocative power of Burton’s prose in this highly-praised debut novel.

There is something extraordinary about the way Burton creates the world of Amsterdam: its wealth, its precarious geography, its pettiness, its hypocrisy. The tyranny of the church in an almost pagan desire to appease the sea. The suspiciousness and envy of neighbours. The innate xenophobia against the black servant Otto.

There is also a sensuality in the prose in the sights, sounds and tastes of the city – particularly taste as it revolves in large part around a shipment of sugar and fears that excessive sweetness may endanger the soul. And herrings which, assuredly, are good for the soul.

The story itself centres around eighteen-year-old Petronella (Nella) Brandt, arriving unaccompanied at the home of her new husband, Johannes. She is testily received by two other women: Marin, Brandt’s spinster (for wont if another word) sister; and Cornelia, a servant. The rivalries and tensions and secrets and shared confidences and growing respect between these three women within the nine rooms of their home are the heart of the novel.

Or one of its hearts.

There’s also the matter of the eponymous miniaturist whose presence hovers over the novel enigmatically. Despite her almost complete absence from the novel and absolute silence within it.

She is introduced firstly when Johannes buys an extravagant albeit idiosyncratic gift for his young wife: a miniature of their own house. Angered by the perceived childishness of the gift, believing it a mockery of her lack of power in the house dominated by her sister-in-law, Nella engages the miniaturist to create items which she had been forbidden by Marin. Further unasked for items arrive with them – and continue to arrive – bearing an uncanny likeness and hinting towards something prophetic and lyrical. Or something underhand and prosaic: spies and bribes and listening at doorways. Letters go missing but somehow find their recipients. The miniatures change in unusual ways foreshadowing events. Things that shouldn’t have fallen from pockets somehow do. But then, we’ve all had that happen to us, haven’t we?

It was such a delicately drawn line between realism and a hint of more.

And of course, we discover that the miniaturist is a woman: free and (shockingly) living independently of father, husband or guild; whereas Nella, Marin and Cornelia are trapped in their home and with each other and dependent on Johannes. She is blonde in the dark-haired streets of Amsterdam. Her sign is the symbol of the sun. An elegant counterpoint to Nella.

And finally, there’s Johannes: handsome, endearing, distant. There’s an element of the thriller in his parts of the book – and a really very effective trial scene. For a book which was very female centric, Johannes never became either a tyrant or a figure of ridicule and all the women, I think, loved him.

Possibly not the best husband in the world but a good man. In a world which was less tolerant than ours.

If I have a concern about the book, that is perhaps it: the Brandts seemed just a little bit more tolerant and modern than quite fitted with the era.

In case you were wondering olie-koecken were a form of doughnut, a yeast batter, fried and covered in that sinfully dangerous sugar.

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