Stephanie Jones: Book Review - The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Publish Date
Friday, 5 September 2014, 12:00AM
By Stephanie Jones

Seventeenth-century Amsterdam comes to life in Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, an incandescent portrayal of a young woman thrust into a new family amid the halcyon days of Dutch sea trade across Europe and to Africa, Asia and the Indonesian archipelago. The economy was dominated by the fortunes of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), better known as the Dutch East India Company, which a brief preface notes was a star of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, with shares reaching 570% of their nominal value by 1671.

The mood of the populace belies this triumphant position, however. The brief span of the novel – a handful of months from late 1686 – finds a merchant class consumed by fear of “rising waters”, unable to ignore the conviction that “keeping Amsterdam afloat takes constant work.” Then there is the societal fixation on piety and righteousness, which manifests as an obsession with greed and sodomy. Those found guilty of the latter are summarily sentenced to death by drowning in the sewage-rotten harbour.

Befitting these cultural mores, Burton eschews a romantic mood, marrying diligent research with the fictionalized tale of a real-life couple, Petronella Oortman and Johannes Brandt, and the dollhouse that is today displayed in the Rijksmuseum in Oortman’s name. As the story proper opens after a prologue set at a funeral, 18-year-old Nella arrives from her family’s home in rural Assendelft to begin her arranged marriage to the Amsterdam merchant Johannes. The union was promoted by Nella’s mother, an indebted widow determined that her daughter should enjoy the practical protection afforded by a “city shepherd”.

Upon entering her new husband’s home, Nella is confronted by the servants of the household, Cornelia and Otto, and Johannes’ unmarried younger sister, the enigmatic Marin. The shock of the new is exquisitely conveyed by Burton, who contrasts the rich décor of the Brandt home – sumptuous art, “harder than life, coloured in excess” – with the reticence and muted anxiety of its inhabitants.

Johannes, when he finally returns from the travels he embarked upon hours after taking vows, shows no interest in consummating the marriage, and the combative, complicated sibling relationship is revealed in cryptic mealtime conversations and snatches of argument overheard by Nella.

Then, shockingly, a gesture of welcome from Johannes; an exquisite dollhouse worth many thousands of guilders that is waiting to be filled with tiny furniture and people. Its arrival provokes paroxysms of protest from Marin about the needless expense – the threat of financial collapse hangs over the household, as it does the city, like a Damoclean sword – and ushers in the miniaturist, the crafter of delicate items who hovers at the edge of the frame, spectral and prescient, communing with Nella through creations that arrive in small, perfect bundles.

Burton has an iron command of setting and character, with the adrift Nella, “shipwrecked between the idea of her marriage and its actual state”, and Marin emerging as the novel’s most compelling duo, augmented by the conniving Agnes Meerman, one-half of a sugar-trading couple whose venality and vengefulness threatens to extinguish the Brandt household.

I was surprised to learn that The Miniaturist is Burton’s debut novel. Her grasp of storytelling is uncommonly assured, her work layered and affecting, ethereal yet grounded. She constructs an environment so vivid and throbbing with life that she might have come straight from old Amsterdam, and it is blessedly easy to enter her bygone world.

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