“Brandt is rich and charismatic, yet deeply mysterious and secretive. What is he hiding? Why is he so taciturn with his new bride?”
If it is mystery, intrigue, dark magic and danger you’re looking for in a book to beguile the winter nights – look no further. You’ve come to the right shop. Indeed, you might say you’ve come to the Old Curiosity Shop and found Jane Eyre in there. (More of Jane later). The Miniaturist is a fascinating mix of real creepiness and surprising bravery, all set in Amsterdam’s so-called Golden Age, when the city grew fat on trade with the Far East.
It is winter, 1686. Provincial girl Petronella (‘Nella’) Oortman has been married off to an older man, Johannes Brandt. Brandt is rich and charismatic, yet deeply mysterious and secretive. What is he hiding? Why is he so taciturn with his new bride?
To add to Nella’s troubles, it quickly emerges that Brandt is in no hurry to consummate the marriage. Nella sits alone in her dreary room, adorned with depressing portraits of bleeding birds and shot rabbits. Why won’t her husband come to her?
And then, by way of compensation, he presents her with a gift.
“The answer to the unsettling phenomenon must lie with the mysterious miniaturist – prophet, some sort of guide, or just an old-fashioned spy?”
At the heart of this wonderful story is the dolls’ house Brandt gives Nella. It is a perfect replica of her marital home, and she commissions a miniaturist to furnish it.
But when the exquisitely-made, tiny models begin to arrive in parcels, Nella notices something astounding about them. They somehow seem able to mimic events in the real house around them, even to prophesise things before they happen.
The answer to the unsettling phenomenon must lie with the mysterious miniaturist – prophet, some sort of guide, or just an old-fashioned spy? Nella struggles to find out. And here is where we see something of Jane Eyre about this strong-minded, strong-willed Dutch girl. While many would flee the cold, dark, menacing house, Nella shows bags of pluck. She is determined to find out what is going on. She has, in short, moxy.
essie Burton paints a beautiful backdrop to her story; not just the Brandt home itself, but 17th century Amsterdam. Some of her descriptive passages are as vivid as a Vermeer painted with words instead of oils.
And the religious hypocrisy, so well-drawn in the ghastly Marin, is reflected in the city itself, as pious preachers make their calculated accommodations with greedy merchants. (At one point, canting Calvinists outlaw the manufacture of gingerbread men because they say it is idolatry. The ban doesn’t last long).
There is literal magic in this haunting story, so prepare to suspend a little disbelief. But it’s worth it. This book has one of those rare things in a novel – the power to enrich you.