The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton was everywhere not so long ago, winning a number of awards and receiving a lot of praise from authors and bloggers alike. As is often the case, I was quite late to the party with this book but I was waiting for some of the hype to die down before reading it.
In 17th Century Amsterdam, eighteen year old Nella arrives in the city to begin her new life as wife to a successful merchant trader. But her new home isn’t as she expected: she rarely sees her husband, his sister is cold towards her and Nella feels alone. Until, that is, her husband presents her with a gift: an exact replica of their house in miniature. Nella employs the services of a miniaturist to create items to fill the house; what she doesn’t expect is the eerie accuracy in which the miniaturist portrays their lives. As time moves on, Nella also starts to piece together the secrets her new family keep.
I’m aware that a lot of people love this book, and I did enjoy my experience but ultimately, I feel as if I was missing something.
The Miniaturist is an intriguing tale; it’s extremely readable and definitely a page turner, with the mystery of the miniaturist, the house, and the family’s secrets pushing the story forward. Burton’s characterisation is good throughout the novel, with Nella and Marin being standouts for me. Burton’s portrayal of Nella is well done, and I particularly enjoyed seeing her grow and mature through the span of the book – the childlike, somewhat naïve Nella we meet at the door of her new husband’s home at the novel’s beginning feels different to the Nella we leave at its end. Similarly, Marin is an excellent character. She’s cold and foreboding, bringing menace to the tale. I love how her layers are slowly peeled away throughout the novel; she’s complex and interesting, and definitely more than she seems.
Burton’s research and knowledge of the era in which the book is written feels good, too. It’s clear that she knows a lot about life in Amsterdam during that period, from everything to the food they ate to their ways of life.
The issue I had with the book is due to me feeling a little misled. I’m not sure if this is because of the way the book was marketed or the choice of title, or a mixture of both. Before reading, I thought the book was going to be mainly about the miniaturist and the house that is eerily an exact replica of Nella’s new home in Amsterdam. While it is a large part of the story and runs throughout the book (although often in the background), I found the family to be the main part of the story. And I found them fascinating. However, with a title like The Miniaturist, I expected to find out more about this person and there are many elements of the miniaturist’s story that are left untold or not touched on at all (how does the miniaturist know so much about the family? Who is this person? What’s their story?) In some ways, it feels as if the miniaturist is simply an intriguing hook to get readers involved or a means to push the plot forward before the real crux of the story could come out. The book begins and ends with the family and, to me, they are the most important part of this story – the book is about them and it was they that kept me turning the pages. The miniaturist is an intriguing, and often menacing, addition but I didn’t find out enough to feel fulfilled. To me, the novel would have been stronger if it was simply about the family because they are fascinating enough.
Overall, Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is a good debut and I’d be interested in reading what she writes next. While it took me a little while to get into the book and I do have a few issues with it, it’s a good, entertaining read.