Not what I expected: Waterstones Book of the Year The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Book Reviews, Book Thoughts, literary london, London, Writing


1686, Amsterdam. Nella Oortman arrives at her husband’s doorstep only to step into a bizarre household of tension and secrets. Her handsome, successful husband Johannes does not come to her at night, and his sister Marin seems determined to make her life miserable. But it’s the mystery of her wedding present: the dolls house replica of the house the tiny dolls and furniture that begin to arrive from an elusive Miniaturist that seem to foretell the future that Nella is determined to decipher.

There was a lot of hype about this book. And I really wanted to read it for ages, and a lot of it was great. I loved the setting: I’ve never read anything set in Amsterdam in that time, and was fascinated to find out just what was going on. The various plot lines were fascinating and compelling – for the most part.

Upon her marriage Nella enters an unconventional household to say the least. From Otto the black servant to Cornelia, the mouthy orphan maid to Marin, seemingly over-pious who wears luxurious fur underneath her dress. Especially in comparison to the strict Calvinist city full of rules and rumour – a place where sugar is eaten in secret.

But surprisingly, it is in this strange mishmash of a home that Nella is actually able to find some self-agency. She emerges from the secrets to have a strength of her own, and the household comes to rely upon her. Seeing her journey from passivity to action was one of my favourite parts of the novel: though she does not reach the conventional womanhood she thought she was entering into, she comes to her own.

And the Miniaturist is a part of this. With each parcel – only the first few of which are actually orders – comes a note, seemingly compelling Nella to make her own future. But since each delivery heralds a new twist in what comes next it seems unlikely that she can be a real driving force against the strong current of secrets that keep pulling her under.

The twists were indeed unlikely. I usually had imagined every outcome except the one that presented itself: I was kept reading and guessing as everything went forward, with both the secrets of the household and of the Miniaturist. What I expected to happen universally did not – but I feel like perhaps the plot got into too much of a twist to unravel satisfactorily.

Towards the end the larger world of society intrudes on their home life as well as the miniature version: things get too big to be managed, hidden or denied, and our characters are dragged along by the current. Can we conclude that like what happens to the miniatures happens to the people, what happens in the home will eventually happen to wider society? That what was once secret will be revealed? The house that provides a refuge for these misfits is invaded by the society they hide from. But if this was the point, I feel like it should have been made more strongly.

Though Nella is stronger, it seems irrelevant. She will not be able to do anything due to her gender, her scandalous connections, the chaos left to her and indeed due to her enlightenment so incongruous to her setting. Would she really have got away with all her lone explorations when she should have had a chaperone?

It felt like it was extremely well set up, but just as our character found herself everything else fell apart. The tone of the ending seemed strangely hopeful, as though there were a possibility of a positive fate for Nella whereas I simply cannot think of one.

Despite a marvellous setting, fascinating secrets and characters and good writing I found myself unsatisfied. But I think I’d still recommend it – it’s fascinating and thought-provoking and can’t wait to talk to people about it! (Especially my BOOK CLUB).

7 thoughts on “Not what I expected: Waterstones Book of the Year The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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