I read this book a couple of months ago for the reading group at my library, and I have to say that whilst in many respects I was impressed, the novel left me with gaping black holes of unanswered questions and an overall feeling that it was lacking something. I was internally screaming when my hopes to get answers fell short at the end of the novel, but maybe this sense of immersion with the book (albeit laced with frustration), is what makes The Miniaturist 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, ones which are far too accurate, and which also have startling resemblances to the people in her life. The miniature house is quite an interesting feature in this book. It is essentially a doll’s house, one you play with and enact situations from fantasies or fiction – it is a house that puts you in control. As the plot develops however, the house becomes a clear symbol for Nella’s loss of control in her life. Nella, didn’t ask for the house, she certainly didn’t ask for the miniatures of people she knows, and all the control she should have had over it is taken from her as they strangely start to reflect events in her life. 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.
Jessie Burton creates a story that is laden with undercurrents, secrets, and that draws a complex picture of relationships and how difficult it is to truly know someone. It’s ironic that we get to know Marin, Nella’s sister-in-law, extremely well despite her best efforts to keep family secrets within the family. What I got from Marin’s desperate attempts to keep it together is that secrets come out eventually no matter how hard you try. I found this especially punctuated by the fact that most of what Nella uncovered about Marin, she discovered indirectly.
With Nella, on the other hand, at no point could I truly say I knew, empathised with or even liked her. For me, the naive and unassuming aspects of Nella’s character that were so evident at the start of the novel died the more we saw of her mindset as life crumbled around her. Her almost disconnected approach to her perfect married life being shattered left me, in turn, feeling disconnected from her. I wasn’t really convinced by her emotional responses, and more often than not, she felt more or less like a vessel for the story rather than a young woman in seventeenth century Amsterdam with severe marital problems.
If I may be slightly petulant at this point, I’ll finally get to my biggest frustration: the end of the novel left several questions unanswered, with some seemingly fantastical elements that were not addressed. Ok, whilst that uncertainty may be there to intentionally create unease in the reader and to mirror Nella’s own insecurities for her future at the end, the mystery had gathered so much momentum that I was genuinely disappointed not to have more answers.
Despite the lukewarm feeling of being slightly underwhelmed at the end, I have to give credit where it’s due: The Miniaturist’s sudden turn for the dramatic did make me sit up and pay attention. At the end of the day, it was a 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.
Verdict: Definitely worth a try