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Review: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
HarperCollins, 2014. 400 pp. $27

Eighteen-year-old Petronella Oortman has left her small Dutch town for Amsterdam and marriage to a wealthy, much older businessman she has barely met. Nella, as she’s called, could have done much worse. She comes from an old, respected family, but her father has gone bankrupt, and, considering that women have no power to make their own lives, a good marriage is all Nella can hope for. Since Johannes Brandt ranks among the merchant princes of Amsterdam, the world capital of trade in the late seventeenth century, she has instantly achieved a status to be envied.

Petronella Oortman's doll's house, anonymous craftsman, 1686-1710. Petronella and her husband, Johannes, were real historical figures (Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

Petronella Oortman’s doll’s house, anonymous craftsman, 1686-1710. Petronella and her husband, Johannes, were real historical figures (Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

But that’s not how she feels entering her new home. Her husband isn’t even there to greet her, and when he does show up, he seems indifferent. Johannes doesn’t even assert his conjugal rights, about which Nella has mixed feelings. She longs for affection and warmth, but her mother has lectured her about the pains and discomforts of marriage, to be dutifully endured, because that’s a woman’s role. However, it’s not just Johannes who slights her. Nella’s sister-in-law, Marin, finds fault with everything the bride says or does, as if she resents her brother marrying, especially that one.

Yet there’s much more to Marin, a woman who keeps maps, souvenirs from the Far East, and business ledgers in her bedroom, and treats her brother as if he were a greenhorn at trade.

Marin starts to shift in Nella’s mind. From her drab black clothes, Marin rises like a phoenix, enveloped in her nutmeg scent–no lily for her, no floral nicety. Covered in the symbols of the city, Marin is a daughter of its power–she is a secret surveyor of maps, an annotator of specimens–an annotator of something else as well, not so easy to slot into a category.

Indeed, Marin isn’t the only manipulator in Nella’s life. Johannes’s wedding gift is a miniature house, inlaid with pewter and tortoise shell, a precise replica of the one they live in. At first, the gift bewilders and angers Nella. By giving her a doll’s house, is Johannes making a not-so-veiled allusion to her youth and the difference between their ages? But to amuse herself (she’s got little else to do), she orders furnishings for the gift house from a miniaturist, who sends her more than she’s ordered, all exact renderings of the inhabitants, dogs included, and the furniture. Each delivery contains a pithy aphorism or exhortation, riddles that leave Nella perplexed.

Only an insider could have created these things with such accuracy. What’s more, as events progress, and Johannes’s business empire shows severe cracks, the miniatures seem to foretell a bleak future, if not ordain it. Who’s watching or pulling the strings?

Normally, I shy away from fiction in which magic plays too great a role, especially as a deus ex machina. But to Burton, magic’s a tool, not a toy, and neither she nor her characters are saying, “Gee whiz, look what I can do!” Rather, The Miniaturist is about freedom, or lack of it, and the willingness to choose a way of life despite what others may think. Burton does an excellent job conveying the social policing through which neighbor watches (and reports on) neighbor, branding ordinary desires as sinful and stamping out individuality. The very creation of a miniature house inlaid with tortoise shell creates tension between a longing for beauty (and to show off) and fear of what others might say, perhaps from jealousy.

In this constrained environment, people are themselves miniatures, closeted in small moral and emotional spaces–invisible prisons, as Johannes calls them. There are secrets within secrets, lies within lies. Through their gradual revelation, Burton uncovers truths about how the world works, especially for women, and what few choices they have. That powerlessness is what Nella and Marin struggle against–Johannes too–and their engrossing story keeps the pages turning.

That said, I wish The Miniaturist went deeper, in two respects. Though I like the way Burton portrays the central characters, with internal conflicts and multiple layers, the town hypocrites, who make briefer appearances, could have worn capital H’s on their clothes. Also, and probably related, the religion feels put on, as if nobody in Amsterdam actually believed that stuff, when of course, they did.

In fact, by staying away from the religious core of Dutch life, I think Burton misses a great opportunity. The entire question of free will is central to Calvinist thought, yet nobody in the novel wrestles with it, except to worry that the civil authorities will punish them. Divine retribution seems far away, and yet in that time and place, it was a real concept.

Still, I enjoyed The Miniaturist and think it deserves its popularity.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.