Jessie Burton ISBN: 9781447250920 Published July 2014
Never judge a book by its cover – that’s the old saying, right? I’ll let you into a little secret… shh… come closer… I judge books by their covers. I know, I know, it’s terrible. It’s atrocious. It’s unforgiveable. But come now, you do too, don’t you? Just a little? Surely some of you must, otherwise why else would publishers go so out of their way to replicate the “feel” of a successful book cover to sell similar books? I don’t blame them. I’m a sucker for aesthetics and if I’ve associated a cover with a story I’ve enjoyed, of course I’ll be attracted to a similar looking book. I’ve veered slightly from where I was going with this, suffice to say The Miniaturist has a pretty cover and I fell for it. Mainly it was the ruff. I mean, who hasn’t spent their formative years wishing the full-sized ruff would come back into vogue one day? No? Just me then.
To the tale at hand – I was certain I could see the path of the story as it unfolded. Surely this would happen by this point and surely that would happen by the end. It is not often that a story surprises me but The Miniaturist, at almost every pivotal turn, did.* Driven largely by an intriguing cast of characters† and a delicate hint of mystery, the writing is vivid and sharp. It was difficult to tear myself away and carry on with the mundane tasks of workaday life without my mind wandering back, wondering what would happen next (yeah, it’s one of those).
Arriving at her new home in a damp and frigid Amsterdam in the late 1680s, young Petronella Brandt nee Oortman, of old (and depleted) money, is newly married to the handsome and much older Johannes Brandt of new and carefully acquired money. Petronella – Nella – very soon discovers that married life is not what she expected or hoped for. The arrival of a cabinet-sized replica of the dark, whisper-filled house is only the beginning as we embark on a tale in which it is difficult to tell who, if anyone, is in control of their own lives.
The cabinet requires furnishing and a miniaturist must be found.
I was somewhat surprised to find much had been made of the book’s strong female characters‡ as though those commenting live in a different world to the one I live in. I suppose they do. And this story in which the women are central and “non-typical” might have been enough for those people to break out the smelling salts. I am surrounded by strong female characters in daily life and see this as the normal state of affairs. Seeing this reflected in this book§, therefore, didn’t stand out as anything out of the ordinary. However, I fully admit to my own cliché-skewed assumptions about Nella that I was more than happy to have smashed to smithereens with a sledgehammer, and then smashed some more, and then ground under a hobnailed boot heel. I exaggerate, I exaggerate, but sometimes it truly is lovely to be wrong.
* And that is not to say that I disparage stories during which I can see the path ahead and am proven correct. I love them too. That is the nature of stories and of humans and our comfort-seeking minds. To nick a bit off Terry Pratchett, we are Pan narrans, the story-telling ape. And never has there been a more gorgeous name for us.
† I baulk at calling them misfits though some people would regard them as such. If they are, then so am I.
‡ How I love and loathe that term in equal measure.
§ Albeit set in a time one might not associate with independent free-thinking women. I mean seriously people, history didn’t actually happen in black and white. I know you generally only learn about the lads at school but, come on, make an effort.