Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist
ISBN: 9780-06-230681-4
First Published: 2014
*** (3/5)

Set in the seventeenth century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist is the story of an 18-year old new bride, who has to act beyond her years to deal with a strange family, her husband's trade, and a miniaturist.


No profanity, some sexual scenes.

This is the story of Nella Portman, who gets married to a rich trader in Amsterdam, Johannes Brandt. She arrives to the new home to a lukewarm welcome and a cold sister-in-law, Marin Brandt, a chirpy servant, Cornelia, and a first of her, a black steward, Otto.

Her husband is aloof, but friendly. When he gives her a miniature version of the house as a wedding gift, Nella contacts a Miniaturist to furnish it. What starts a simple order of furnishings takes an unexpected turn when the miniaturist starts sending Nella things she hasn't ordered, and somehow predicts events before they unfold.

There are some interesting themes that have been explored in this book: 
1. Racism: Otto is an oddity, since he is not a slave, but a paid employee, a concept unheard of in 1686. This results in open hostility as well as curious stares
2. Women's rightsWhile Nella breaks most of the rules, she is still constrained by the society of her times. Arranged marriages are a norm. Unaccompanied women, or those staying alone, are frowned upon. 
3. Trade: Trade forms an interesting backdrop of the story, through the concept of guilders, trading and storing goods, destinations  and also, societal status

The Sugar Cones
Despite being fairly long at 420-odd pages, the book is an interesting read. It is well researched - the last 3 pages even have a glossary, salary comparisons and household costs in the 17th century Amsterdam. Also, the pivotal trading good (in this context), is a sugar cone, which is how sugar was traded until the 19th century.  

I liked the style of writing, and the story as well - maybe because the tone, premise and the protagonist were similar to that of Rebecca (Of Daphne Du Maurier). There is this overlying creepiness and mystery in the story almost till the very end.

The blurb on the cover of the book, however, is misleading, which in part, led to unmet expectations. To highlight a couple of points,

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed" : Um no, there was a lot that was not revealed, and there was a lot that was hidden. 

"..As she uncovers its secrets, she realizes the escalating dangers that await them all": No she didn't. She uncovers its secrets only after the dangers have already occurred (the only exception being the blackening sugar cone).

The book also suffers from a last-minute stitched button-esque ending. The main story proceeds smoothly, but the miniaturist's story is an oddity and a supplementary addition rather than a complementary one. Her semi-futuristic miniatures, meant to add a sense of mystery, don't get the story arc they deserve. The ending is left vague and to me, seemed very incomplete. To be put it more succinctly, it would have made absolutely no difference to the story line if the miniaturist, and the miniature house was removed from the equation - and that is a serious flaw.

The baseline story is good. The historical references and research is spot on. Just for that, the book makes for an interesting read.
For anyone expecting to discover the novelty of miniature houses, miniaturists and a potential suspense based on and around that, it may be a disappointment.


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