""Imaginative, well-written, but, at times, implausible, with an unsatisfactory ending." 3.5 out of 5…"
Book Review: 'THE MINIATURIST', by Jessie Burton. Sat 28/02/2015
The debut novel from author Jessie Burton arrived with a lot of hype. Apparently eleven or so big name publishers battled it out for the rights to its publication. And being named the 2014 Specsavers Book Of The Year, the Waterstones Book Of The Year, and Sunday Times bestseller, the hype continues to grow.
But is it justified? I opened the book with real anticipation, but immediately sought to quell any unfair expectation I may have held. It became immediately apparent, however, that the author is a talented writer. The prose is rich and exacting, the writing incredibly imaginative. The themes presented are brought to life with meticulously detailed descriptive language. It's interesting that the entire narrative is written in the present tense. This, coupled with thorough research, helps transport the reader's consciousness to the book's setting, 1686 Amsterdam.
The story follows eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman, arriving from the country to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her husband is away on business, and even when he returns, he is very distant. But what Johannes does do is to present Nella with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. Enlisting the services of an elusive miniaturist to furnish the house, Nella discovers that the tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts. How did the miniaturist know so much about them? Soon, the secrets of the Brandt household unveil themselves, but as Nella uncovers the hidden truths, she realises the escalating dangers that awaits them all. "Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall?"
[** Spoiler Alert **]
I expected an edge-of-your-seat supernatural / suspense thriller. However, what we are given is a period soap opera, with all the typical ingredients one expects from an episode of Downton Abbey or Wolf Hall. (Or even modern day soaps like Eastenders, only without the outdated costumes.) Illegitimate pregnancy? Check! Homosexual relations? Check! Sexism? Racism? That's here, too.
The main problem is the numerous implausible aspects introduced. Throughout the story, Johannes avoids physical contact with Nella. They barely spend ten minutes in a room together. Yet the novel ends with Nella reminiscing of all the thrilling conversations that she and Johannes supposed to have enjoyed. Another example is Nella's reactions to the various Brandt family revelations. One minute she is so shocked and repulsed, the next she's drastically sympathetic, without any adequate reason why she would change her mind. On Page 214, Jack Phillips, Johannes Brandt's gay lover, suddenly gives Marin Brandt a long kiss in the middle of a violent scene. Why? And Marin doesn't fight him off! Why not? It is neither questioned by the other characters, nor mentioned again. Cheap theatrics?
Additionally, why did Jack Phillips testify against Johannes Brandt, knowing full well it would lead to Brandt's execution? Yes, he was jilted, but Johannes went back to him (the very act which saw Johannes incarcerated proves this). The suggestion is that Jack was paid off by Frans Meerman. However, even through his financial woes, Johannes Brandt is wealthier and far more influential than Frans Meerman - and Jack would know this.
Furthermore, there are some continuity errors. E.g. 1) On Page 271, a little boy, Christoffel, arrives with news of Johannes' arrest, poking his head around the front door. However, the very same door had been slammed shut a page before. 2) Upon completing the book, it become apparent the puzzling prologue at the beginning of the book depicts the future funeral of Marin Brandt. Unlike the rest of the book, which is from the viewpoint of Nella Oortman, the prologue is seen from the eyes of Petronella Windelbreke, the miniaturist herself --> The "exhausted girl" is Nella Oortman, the "maid" is Cornelia, the man in the "broad-brimmed hat" Frans Meerman, etc. Once the church is empty, the woman in question approaches the newly-laid granite slab, and produces "the miniature house with 9 rooms and 5 human figures". She then places the house on Marin's grave. However, the miniature house was in Nella Oortman's possession. Nella had discovered it when she entered and searched the miniaturist's shop, and it remained in Nella's coat pocket until the last page of the book, when she realises it's gone missing. The question is, how did the miniaturist come in possession of the miniature house again? Did she somehow steal it from Nella Oortman's coat pocket? (To say Nella dropped it at the miniaturist's shop just a few moments after placing it in her coat pocket, just for the miniaturist to find again, would be a tad convenient.)
The final drawback, and possibly the most significant, surrounds the miniaturist herself. It was in the hope of discovering all the answers to the mystery of the title character that kept me reading on until the end. But, ultimately, we do not get much of an explanation, no detailed account as to her motivations or background. And what little is revealed has no suspense or supernatural intrigue. Petronella Windelbreke is not a prophet, and she doesn't hold their fate in her hands. In fact, we find the miniaturist little more than an indiscernible supporting character.
Of course, this may be redeemed via a follow-up to this book, focusing predominantly on Petronella Windelbreke. Even Nella Oortman, on Page 388, finds herself wondering "why was the miniaturist taken away?" There is definitely a story there. Maybe the author could do something similar to what Stieg Larsson did with "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" trilogy. The first book of that series focused on a present day mystery, and had just brief flashbacks of the title character's mysterious past. However, the subsequent 2 books brought the title character's past life to the fore and she became the story.