The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
I always thought writers had to publish two or three novels before they delivered a masterpiece. Song of Solomon was Toni Morrison’s 3rd, Beloved her 5th. It took Cormac McCarthy four previous novels before he wrote Blood Meridian. Debate all you want about your favorite Stephen King novel; for me, he became a big hitter with The Shining, his 3rd. Every once in a while, though, a novelist starts big. Real big. Think Emily Bronte. Harper Lee. Think Donna Tartt. With The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton falls into this latter category. She’s delivered a major work on her first try. And, unlike Bronte and Lee, I suspect she’ll deliver many more.
The novel starts with a haunting prologue detailing a mysterious funeral that occurs shortly after the conclusion of the novel’s main events, leaving us to puzzle at the identity of the deceased as we read the succeeding chapters. The story proper, though, begins in 1686 with the arrival of 18-year-old Petronella Oortman (Nella) to her new home in Amsterdam. Innocent of the city’s ways, she has been married off to an older, wealthy merchant named Johannes Brandt. We witness events only through Nella’s eyes as she tries to negotiate the undercurrents of this strange, and rather spooky, household. Her husband is rarely around, sleeps in a separate bedroom, and though affectionate and caring, remains distant. His black-clad brooding sister, Marin, dominates affairs when Johannes is absent, and often when he is home. The servants seem to know more than Nella knows, but aren’t telling. Feet fall softly in the hallways at night, incoherent mumblings meander through the passages, and doors quietly open and close.
Then Nella receives her wedding gift—a large wooden cabinet containing an exact, though miniature, replica of the Brandt household. To furnish it, she contracts the services of the novel’s title character. Though we only catch glimpses of the enigmatic Miniaturist (Nella sends letters, and receives packages in return), the items that begin to fill up the cabinet show nothing but the most exquisite craftsmanship; items of furniture, for instance, that are precise copies of those in the Brandt house down to the most minute details. But, even more eerie, the Miniaturist begins to send Nella, unrequested, little wooden figurines of the house’s occupants that display an uncomfortable familiarity with their personal lives.
Frightened and intrigued, Nella tries to pursue the Miniaturist in the hopes of uncovering the secrets that surround her. Bit by bit, she discovers just how much danger she faces.
Told in strikingly vivid prose that engages all our senses, we are immersed in the world Burton has evoked. We see and smell 17th Century Amsterdam, we feel the damp cold of the Brandt house as winter closes in and the days grow dark. And we travel the twisting pathways of Nella’s thoughts—confused, lonely, frightened, increasingly courageous, and always delightful—as she unknots the mysteries that bind the Brandts. The Miniaturist satisfies like only the best of literature can. Bravo.