By Jessie Burton
Harper Collins, Ecco Paperback Edition, 2015
Sometimes you read a debut novel and you think, this simply cannot be the work of a first-time author. The originality of the subject matter, the world building, and the believable growth of the characters are all marks of a very experienced writer. Yet all these characterize this book by English writer Jessie Burton.
No wonder it was a New York Times best-seller.
In the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is a “cabinet house” or large dollhouse, once owned by a woman name Petronella Oortman, who lived in the seventeenth century. As lovers of this historical period know, the late 1600’s was the apogee of the United Provinces of the Netherland’s influence in the world. The merchants of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, brought wealth and fame to Holland. The comfortable lifestyle of its wealthy and middle classes have been conveyed to us through the paintings of the Dutch masters, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Judith Leyster and others.
In The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton imagines the life of Petronella, “Nella”, the bride of an Amsterdam merchant named Johannes Brandt. He gave the cabinet to his wife as a wedding gift. In Burton’s telling, the cabinet’s maker is not only an artistic virtuoso, but prescient as well. The tiny items created to be set inside the cabinet include uncanny likenesses of the house’s human and animal inhabitants. They also offer jarring portents of future events. Nella’s disturbance at these weird gifts mirrors her growing unease at secrets she fears are held by her husband and his sister, Marin.
As Nella uncovers the truth about the family she has married into, she grows in maturity and compassion. Burton’s skill in portraying this is remarkable. As the story progresses we learn much about the social repression that accompanied the commercial success of Calvinist Holland. At the same time, the quasi-democratic values held by the Dutch, their belief in capitalism rather than a class system based on aristocracy, and their emphasis on domestic cleanliness, order and financial security make this era more accessible to us than other periods of history.
When we look back at history, we can only imagine what it was like to live then and there. The novelist’s job is to bring the past to life. Burton has taken liberties in that the real Petronella Oortman was a wealthy widow by the time she married merchant Johannes Brandt, while in the book Nella is a naïve eighteen-year- old, and the fate of Brandt propels the book’s plot. Burton has taken an historical person and surrounded her with a dose of magic, both literally, as told in this story, and metaphorically, as in the skill of her writing.
This is a wonderful book.