The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton


Picador are on fire and it seems like they can do no wrong. They are publishing the work of some of the finest contemporary literary writers of the year and with each new announcement, my wish list grows ever longer. We all know that I was crazy about Burial Rites (let alone Hannah Kent) and I am getting excited for the release of Station Eleven having contributed to the unbelievable hype that has surrounded it. But not only are these books intelligent, captivating and thought-provoking, they are also beautiful objects to own. If you check out some of their latest titles you’ll see that each one has been designed thoughtfully, creatively and with the end-user in mind.

But none more so than the cover for The Miniaturist.

Courtesy of @picadorbooks
Courtesy of @picadorbooks

Before I even address the content, I have to applaud cover designer, Katie Tooke. This jacket is an absolute masterpiece. Inspired by the book’s cabinet house, much like its author’s narrative was sparked by a doll’s house in Amsterdam, Tooke commissioned Martin & Line of Anderson M Studio to build their own miniature house. That in itself is incredible. But she went further. Dave Hopkins then sketched the characters who now adorn the cover. So this, combined with the most glorious endpapers I’ve ever seen, makes for a book that is bound to catch people’s eyes on a shelf and make it impossible not to purchase it simply to form a new aesthetic dimension to their own shelf or table. It certainly adds a degree of sophistication to my jumble of a makeshift shelf. You can read more about Tooke’s experience here.

The inspiration behind The Miniaturist
The inspiration behind The Miniaturist

So now I’ve sung the praises of its cover, let’s get to the book itself.

Jessie Burton (@jesskatbee)’s novel was the centre of attention when it came to her agent organising an auction. With 11 publishers vying for The Miniaturist, Burton’s life was transformed when the book was won, following an intense bidding war, by Francesca Main of Picador Books for a whopping six-figure deal. It has been sold to THIRTY countries and is currently the subject of debate for film producers as its increasing publicity has inevitably reached Hollywood’s doors. To put this all in perspective, the Daily Mail reported that a debut has not been this successful since Fifty Shades of Grey. Mind-blowing.

But does the novel live up to its hype? I was in the very fortunate position of receiving The Miniaturist just before a week-long holiday in Lisbon, so as I lounged on the beach, Burton’s masterpiece transported me to the Netherlands of the seventeenth century for a delectable experience full of intrigue and charm.

The book follows Nella Oortman who, upon her arrival in Amsterdam (1686), sets out to her new home where her husband of an arranged marriage, successful merchant, Johannes Brandt, resides. For the naive country youth, Brandt’s impressive household complete with waiting staff, Cornelia and Otto, and severe sister, Marin, proves to be a jarring shift in her lifestyle. And when Johannes proves elusive just when Nella expects to form a close marital bond, her feeling of distinct otherness becomes all-consuming through Burton’s masterful control of language.

In place of consummating the marriage, and much to the distaste of his sister, Johannes presents his new young wife with an exquisitely indulgent and richly designed cabinet house, one that forms an exact replica of his property. Faced with little else to do in her alien environment with its seemingly hostile inhabitants, Nella employs a miniaturist to furnish her wedding gift. But when the miniaturist sends additional objects which eerily reflect the Brandt household’s intimate movements, Nella has to act upon the words accompanying the miniaturist’s first package in order to protect the numerous secrets of her new family:

‘Every woman is the architect of her own fortune’

What follows is a tale that is as detailed and beguiling as the cabinet house at its heart. The book is riddled with silent dialogues that pass between its charming yet fractured characters – from the epistolary exchange between the miniaturist and Nella, to the almost furtive snaps of conversation of husband and wife – Burton spins an intricate web that gradually links each of its prominent figures, building a subtle yet unshakeable momentum fuelled by secrets and desire until the overwhelming tension becomes almost claustrophobic.

The mystery behind the miniaturist was certainly the most enjoyable aspect of the novel for me. Towards the close of the book Burton turns her focus towards the domestic relationships of which the miniaturist has been tantalisingly aware throughout, which, although had to be done in order to complete the story and make sense of the complex plot for the reader, was still a shame in my eyes as I wanted the puzzling nature of the plot to continue – not a criticism, more a sigh against traditional plot structures.

I have no doubt that the success of this book will continue to grow and I am incredibly grateful to Sandra Taylor of Picador Books for sending me such a wonderful book for review. Burton has written a novel that the public unknowingly wanted to read – it has captured the communal imagination, inspiring booksellers and fans alike to give their own nod to the book – be it through the most miniature Miniaturist or recreating the food sumptuously described during the novel (my mouth is watering just at the thought of that miniature marzipan…)

If you haven’t had the chance to read it – where have you been? This is the talk of the town – you’ll want to be part of it.

– Franny

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