I love buying books as gifts. However, I usually end up buying books that I would like to read, rather than ones bought with the receiver in mind. This summer, I bought Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist for someone as a gift, but as I watched it climb the bestseller charts and claim a solid top position, I decided I had to read it myself.
The Miniaturist is an unusual story. Set in seventeenth century Netherlands, it is a novel that is historically enlightening, yet deals with issues startlingly relevant to today’s society. We join Nella Oortman’s story as she arrives from the country to her husband’s house in Amsterdam, having only met him once before. Her innocence, naivety and nervousness endear the reader as she invites us to travel her journey with her. From the moment she nervously knocks on the intimidating door of her future, we experience her feelings of shame, inadequacy and doubt. Yet, as Nella’s story develops, she finds joy in surprising places as she settles into her new life.
Contemporary social taboos are a prevalent theme of the novel. Insecurity, class boundaries, homosexuality and singleness are subjects woven throughout the novel and Burton is perhaps most engaging when she juxtaposes seventeenth century society’s reactions with the modern reader’s expectations – and the result is shocking and heart-wrenching.
The idea of a miniaturist is intriguing, perhaps unnerving: why would you choose to have miniature models of your family residing in a smaller version of your own home? The novel explores this question, at first harmlessly enough, yet the story soon takes a turn to the dark side when the miniaturist’s models start to act more like voodoo dolls rather than ornaments. However, this aspect of the novel does not control the plot, instead merely acting as more of a sideline to the main action, which is set firmly in the remits of the natural world.
The Miniaturist is an intriguing novel. It is one that will grab you by your heartstrings and play them until the last page. The language is so beautifully crafted that each page is a pleasure to read. I’d recommend you buy your friends and family a copy (then perhaps steal it for yourself). It is sure to rise on the bestseller charts once again closer to Christmas and, with the paperback edition being published in January, we can expect to see a revival of Jessie Burton’s debut masterpiece.