I read this book a couple of months ago for Wembley Library’s reading group, and I have to say that whilst in many respects I was very impressed, the title itself left me, for the most part, with gaping black holes of unanswered questions. The most pressing of which were: who/what exactly was the miniaturist? And; why do I still know next to nothing about those miniatures? I was left internally screaming when my hopes to get answers fell short, but maybe this, this sense of immersion with the book (albeit laced with frustration), might be what made The Miniaturist well worth the read.
Set in seventeenth century Netherlands, The Miniaturist reads like a thriller with elements of other genres popping up that can throw you off guard, but works well until the end. The book begins with no fanfare and with a very unassuming, modest protagonist, Petronella. Nella, a young girl of 18 years, has just had an arranged marriage to a man several years her senior, and she has arrived in Amsterdam to live in her husband’s house with his sister and their servants. The tentative beginnings of married life are difficult for Nella as her sister-in-law, Marin, receives her coldly, and even her husband pointedly keeps his distance. As a peace offering for his behaviour, her husband Johannes, a merchant, buys her a miniature version of their house – a doll’s house basically – and Nella, though underwhelmed by the gesture, seeks the services of a miniaturist to furnish her new little house. Herein the fun starts.
Although Nella does receive every item she requests of the miniaturist, extra ones mysteriously start to be delivered to her. Ones she didn’t ask for, and ones which are incredibly accurate for things the miniaturist should know nothing about, and which also have startling resemblances to the people in her life. She starts to ask questions, write letters, none of which are responded to. During her sleuthing into this little mystery, her new family life starts to unravel around her as Johannes’ trading business falls apart and the secrets which have kept this family functioning on autopilot for so long are exposed.
Compared to the sister-in-law, Marin, whom the reader gets to know extremely well despite her best efforts to keep family secrets within the family, at no point could I truly say I knew, empathised with or even liked Nella. She felt to me more or less like a vessel for the story to be told rather than a young woman in seventeenth century Amsterdam with severe marital problems. There is also the big question mark that still hangs over the miniaturist. What I found frustrating was that although Jessie Burton gave us a name and a character which we could identify as the miniaturist, the hints at fantastical elements with regards to their work were never really addressed. How exactly was the miniaturist able to make such accurate miniatures of Nella’s private life? Did the miniature of the dog suddenly get a red patch after the incident with the real dog, or was it a stain that Nella missed when she first got it? And is there a magical element to this after all?
Maybe I just wanted more, and maybe that speaks volumes for how good this book is. Admittedly, the book’s sudden turn for the dramatic really made me sit up and pay attention. When I’m not fishing for answers or reading too much into the book, I can honestly say that The Miniaturist really was a very good read with a fresh approach to the thriller/historical genres – even if I stared at the last sentence of the novel in disbelief, wondering if my particular book was missing an epilogue.