Jessie Burton‘s The Miniaturist is one of those books that was on my radar for a long time before I finally got it. Its peculiar cover and intriguing title both caught my eye, and it went onto my long list of wanted books. Fast-forward five years, and I finally bought it as a gift for myself. Perfect timing, too, because it fits right in with my reading-through-time challenge. Following The Glass Woman, set in Iceland in the fall of 1686, The Miniaturist takes place at the exact same time, but a bit further east.
Starting in October 1686 in the Netherlands’ capital city, Amsterdam, the novel focuses on young Petronella (Nella), who just married a rich merchant, Johannes Brandt. New to the city, Nella is overwhelmed by all the differences of her new home and her new life. While her husband is kind but aloof, his unmarried sister Marin is much more present and severe. They employ innocent Cornelia – who will soon become Nella’s closest friend – and Otto, a black man who narrowly missed becoming a slave. He’s the first black person Nella has ever seen, and unfortunately, he faces much racism in Amsterdam.
Soon enough, Johannes gifts his bride a miniature house, built into a cabinet. It’s a near-exact replica of their home in Amsterdam. Nella has the opportunity to make something in her new home her own, and she sets about finding a miniaturist to make small items – furniture, dolls, and the like – to fill in her small house.
The novel moves slowly at first, drawing you into this hazy world. But as time ticks by, surprises and mysteries emerge. Why hasn’t Johannes spent any alone time with Nella, even though they’ve been married for several weeks now? What is Marin hiding, and why is she so cold? Why does the miniaturist, only communicated with via letters, keep sending Nella random items she never asked for?
The Miniaturist starts off as a light historical drama, but it grows into so much more. It offers hints of magical realism, especially through the titular miniaturist who remains offstage. Is she a spy? Or a prophetess? Because somehow, she knows more about the people living in her house than Nella does.
The book also offers mystery. Many of the characters hide secrets, and Nella is on a mission to find out what they are. Her cryptic miniatures can only reveal so much, and she’ll have to unravel some things on her own.
The Miniaturist is a beautifully written book with vivid imagery and rich characters. Each character, no matter how prominent or minor, feels fully developed and believable. They often have many layers, and it takes time to get to know them, but it makes for much more complete personalities. Even the villains aren’t one-dimensional; you can see them crack and falter, see them as they might see themselves. However, it’s all from Nella’s perspective, so some characters remain a mystery through the end.
We also get to see our protagonists grow. The book only spans three months, but a lot happens in that season, and each person must evolve to survive. Nella, in particular, makes a great transformation, learning from her new family and forging ahead in ways they can’t.
I found only two minor flaws within The Miniaturist: First, some threads of the story seem to be abandoned. Though I kept waiting for some new information or closure on certain plot points, they remained elusive. A sequel would be amazing, but it doesn’t seem there is one.
Second – and this is more a matter of taste – is how the last third of the story unfolded. Though probably realistic, especially given the time, some things turned out badly for certain characters. That’s already clear from the prologue, and yet I held out hope for a happier ending. In the end, I was predictably left a tad heartbroken. Perhaps that’s a sign of a good book though: I cared about the characters’ fates.
The Miniaturist was a lovely and original book inspired by a real cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It’s darkly magical but also a glimpse into the reality of 1680s Europe. Jessie Burton is an excellent writer, and I’m already eager to read her other two novels.
One last thing: The Miniaturist was adapted into a two-part mini-series, first aired on BBC One between December 26 and December 27, 2017. I’ll definitely try to watch that as soon as I can!