Friday, 6 February 2015

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: When Nella comes to Amsterdam in the autumn of 1686 to join the husband she wed a few weeks earlier, married life is nothing like she anticipated. She is confronted with an absent husband, a hostile sister-in-law who has no intention of relinquishing her role in the household, a cheeky and cocksure maid, and a manservant from Surinam whose dark skin draws stares wherever he goes.

Her husband’s wedding present to her is a cabinet house – a miniature version of her new home, the sort given to young daughters of the wealthy so they may play at keeping house. At first Nella is affronted – she is not a child, but a new wife! But then she spots a strange advertisement for ‘A Miniaturist, residing at the sign of the sun.’ And the motto, ‘Everything man sees, he takes for a toy.’

Intrigued, Nella places an order for a miniature lute and betrothal cup for the cabinet house. What she receives is far more than she has ordered. It includes furniture that is eerily similar to the furniture in her new home. A cradle that seems to mock her with her husband’s absence from her bed. And two tiny dogs that are perfect replicas of his greyhounds.

The packages keep coming – each one betraying an ever-more uncanny knowledge of their household. Is this miniaturist a spy, a sorcerer ... or a prophet?

The story is enmeshed in secrets and surprises. But if it skirts the edges of magic realism, then the reality is a dark and brutal one indeed. Jessie Burton immerses the reader in the rigid Calvinist society of 17th Century Amsterdam – caught between the twin pillars of guilder and God. A society growing rich on the luxuries their ships bring back from the far reaches of the known world – but appalled by the temptations those luxuries represent.

It is more than a period piece, though. It’s impossible not to catch parallels with the modern world. In Burton’s end notes, she records that, in this period, 0.1% of Amsterdam society owned 42% of all the wealth – a figure not so different to that recently published in Oxfam’s latest report on the distribution of global wealth today. As for the endless edicts from the burgomeisters, the intolerance of difference, the brutality of punishments meted out: it seems that 17th C Calvinism had more in common with modern forms of extremism we might care to admit.

This is not a book that ends as you might expect from where it began. It takes you by the hand and leads you slowly from the light into the dark. And then perhaps shows you a glimmer of light again at the end. Something that rewards careful reading and – I suspect – rereading.

You will enjoy this if you liked: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini; The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

Avoid if you dislike: Dark historical fiction, stories of women battling a male dominated society

Perfect accompaniment: Olie-koecken (spiced doughnuts), puffert pancakes and spiced wine.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Available from Amazon

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