Book Review: The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

I’ve been writing this blog entry for the last two days.

On the first, I opened a Word Document, agonised over the creation of an appropriately witty (or at least clever, I understand my limitations) title, promptly named it “The Miniaturist Review” (with optional smiling emoticon) and promptly spent the subsequent couple of hours playing Assassin’s Creed and ignoring my responsibilities, which was, in fact, eerily reminiscent of the first time I had to write a CV, a process that required, needless to say, several days, a worrying amount of coffee, and a few irritated parental speeches to encourage me to even get started.

On the second day, I wrote a paragraph, deleted said paragraph, wrote another paragraph, deleted that paragraph – yes, I am available to give interviews on this absolutely awe-inspiring creative process, details forthcoming – and eventually gave up, disgusted, to watch TV instead. On a completely unrelated note, Holby City has a few particularly intriguing storylines going.

Today, however, I started out determined to start this review, eventually finish it, proofread it, and post it, preferably before dinner. A new day means a new me, and procrastination was yesterday’s game, and would not be allowed to encroach upon today’s successes. Burton’s The Miniaturist would not, I decided, be the book that would bring my blog-based winning streak – because to be entirely honest, I’m unlikely to have a winning streak on anything else – to an ignominious end. I would not allow it.

(Points for drama?)

Now, to business:

We begin the novel with eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman, travelling to Amsterdam to start a new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Yet the life she finds herself embroiled in is far from the one she could reasonably have anticipated, and each time she discovers what she believes to be an answer to the web of lies encompassing all that she is and odes, her efforts only uncover further questions. It’s an oppressive, almost claustrophobic environment of secrets and lies, and at first, Nella has no defense against it. The reader follows Nella, however, as she does gradually learn the truth of the world she has found herself in – a world of treachery, deceit, and, threaded through it all as catalyst and outcome, the jingle of coin – and stands alongside as she grows and develops, and as she finds a version of herself that is strong enough to survive.

Plot:

It seems trite, now – hello, self-awareness – to think of The Miniaturist as a coming-of-age story, but that is what I think it is. The Nella we meet at the beginning of the novel is naïve and innocent, unsure and insecure, and, inevitably, utterly sundered by her discovery of the truth, whereas the Nella we take leave of at the conclusion is, if not happy, at least self-assured, and if not content, at least knowledgeable enough to survive in a world that had previously emerged victorious over her. I try to avoid cliché – or at least I pretend to try to avoid cliché, in the name of maintaining some sort of reputation, albeit one that is dubious at best – but it’s difficult not to see The Miniaturist as the narrative depicting Nella’s emergence, phoenix-like, into the real world.

My problem with The Miniaturist, however, (I heard you sigh, don’t think you can hide from me), is that there are too many other strands to the plot. There’s the sad story of Brandt and Jack Philips, the equally sad, though distinctly more discreet, so points for that, story of Marin and Otto, and, finally, that of the mysterious miniaturist herself, and her equally mysterious knowledge. The reader is never really provided with any of the answers to the major questions that provide The Miniaturist with some thematic structure, and while that adds to the general feeling of mystery, ending the novel without much in the way of solutions left me more than a little dissatisfied. A couple of unanswered questions are often par for the course, but this book featured a touch more than a ‘couple.’

Characters:

On the other hand, I liked Nella. She blossomed – and I’d been avoiding cliché so well – throughout the narrative, and in a manner that felt entirely believable. She displayed intelligence, tenacity, and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness, all of which are laudable traits, reacted to adversity with admirable strength, and was at all times impressive without ever ceasing to be exactly what she claimed to be – a young woman finding her feet. To survive, she didn’t need to become manlier, or secretive, or even less honourable. She just needed to be the best version of herself. And that, folks, is something I am very much in support of. I’d make a flag, if I had any artistic skill whatsoever.

General comments:

I liked the characters, the thematic structure, the assured, detailed way in which Burton depicts the setting, and some aspects of the plot. However, I also think it’s a tad over-complicated, vaguely unsatisfying, and because I’m in the mood to be distressingly banal: not quite my cup of tea.

(I prefer coffee).