Last summer I was dragged to The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in which the majority of the ancient art immensely bored me. However, this visit actually led me to one of the most unique and eerie books I have read. The Rijksmuseum is home to the intricate dolls’ house of Petronella Oortman, in which every ornament and character is furnished with elaborate detail. This inexplicably captivating dolls’ house is the centre of Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist. While The Miniaturist revolves around the childish object of a dolls’ house, the plot could not be further from this impression of mundane naivety. Encapsulating illegal gay sex, racism and numerous sexual scandals, Burton’s novel continuously shocks, scares and mesmerises the reader.
The novel begins as the virginal young bride Nella enters into the bustling setting of 1686 Amsterdam. Nella must quickly adapt to her unwelcoming and unsettling environment in which the coldness of her new husband, Johannes Brandt, is only matched by the hostility of the seemingly pious sister in law, Marin. The reader is instantly introduced to the dynamic of the house in which Nella is portrayed as the inferior, even to the maid Cornelia and the black servant, Otto. Nella must idly watch as Johannes peculiarly evades his new bride and Marin acts as the over-bearing dictator of the house. The dynamic of this setting flits between a sense of homeliness through the relationship of the servants and an overwhelming sense of the alienation of both Nella, and the Brandt household, from polite society. Throughout the novel, the reader has an itching feeling that something is just not quite right within this seemingly well-ordered domesticity.
In order to occupy his new wife, Brandt purchases a dolls’ house. Following this wedding gift, Nella seeks a miniaturist to furnish this house, unknowingly setting off a supernatural catalyst of sexual proclivity and criminal charge. The miniaturist appears as an omniscient supernatural figure who places uncannily accurate figures of the family, and the future, into the dolls’ house, including an ambiguous and tantalising cradle. The novel constantly turns as the miniaturist is able to taunt and tease both Nella and the reader as she precipitates each upcoming scandal. Burton presents the rising agency of Nella as she becomes central to the survival of the family in the face of illegitimate scandals and criminal persecution.
The peculiarity and uniqueness of this novel is undeniable, yet I was firmly grounded to my sun lounger from the start. Burton centrally explores the rigidity of the legal system and the absolute damning of “sodomy” within this 17th century context. The Miniaturist definitely comes to an emotional crescendo though the persecution of Brandt. I would say that the most interesting character, disregarding the creepy miniaturist, would have to be Marin. Initially, Marin appears as a rigidly minimalistic business woman, who is repulsed by any joy in life. Yet her complexity is explored through the bizarre relics of her room, and her pivotal secret that sends a shockwave through the entire plot. Thus through each character the novel gradually reminds the reader that there is always more than meets the eye.
While admittedly I may not be initially drawn by the thought of a 17th century supernatural and historical novel, the recent BBC adaptation encapsulates why this book must be acclaimed. The BBC adaptation vividly depicts the heightening and heart-breaking degradation of the family unit as societal expectation and prejudice slowly claw at this odd household. In the midst of this chaotic scandal Burton equally presents the maturation of Nella as she gains independence and authority, creating a sense of progression and coming of age. The Miniaturist can certainly be critically acclaimed for its exploration of historical attitudes towards homosexuality, and its presentation of the passivity of the wife in the 17th century. Yet equally, the warmth of the bond between the family unit coupled with the eccentric plot allows this novel to be an accessible and enjoyable read for everyone. From scandalous sex to marzipan, Burton manages to constantly offer the reader an insight into the complexity of each character. As with the innocent gift of a dolls’ house, The Miniaturist offers the reader more than meets the eye.
– Hattie Hansford
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