This review looks at another debut novel: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. This book may have received high praise from The Guardian and The Independent but one questioned it’s authenticity, and the other found the references to modern issues of sexuality jarring with the 17th century setting. I felt these criticisms were a little harsh. Burton has presented a thoroughly-researched, tight novel that I feel explores the theme of sexuality very well. If a book does not tackle some sort of modern issue, it has the threat of becoming out of touch with its readers. If Burton wanted to say something about modern society she is fully entitled to set in whatever period she felt best.
The story follows country-born Nella Oortman as she moves in with her new husband Johannes Brandt, his sister and their servants. Nella is confused by Johannes’ lack of interest as he is constantly out of the house working, and when he returns he is not willing to share their marital bed or even be close with her. The first thing he does to even recognise their marriage is buy her a replica dolls-house of her new home, ready for Nella to furnish. This wasn’t what Nella was hoping for.
Nella and Johannes’ relationship is touching and you can truly feel her pain as she discovers his secrets and her strength as she learns to live with them. But he isn’t the only one with secrets. Burton weaves an intricate net of twists and turns, in a setting that is richly described. However, I feel like I wanted more from this community as a reader. I wanted to see into other people’s houses and have more of a communal reaction to events. We see a little bit of this when we find out that the miniaturist that Nella hires also has contact with many women in the neighbourhood, but this isn’t explored. This reaction is perhaps a compliment to Burton in creating intrigue. The novel doesn’t lack interesting characters, it just leaves us wanting more of their stories.
My only other issue was one of the big twists was hinted too early. Nella finds out a secret about Johannes’ sister, referencing back to a conversation the pair had earlier in the book. But the conversation had already told me too much. I had already guessed the secret and was waiting to see if I was correct. This didn’t ruin the experience exactly, but just lessened it a little. There were other twists and reveals so even with this one spoiled, I still found enjoyment finishing it. Overall, this is a detailed story of a heart-breaking mystery and worth the positive reviews it is receiving. I feel that Burton is one to watch in the future, as this writer has more potential.
Review by Rebecca!