Review – The Miniaturist – by Jessie Burton

Well its been a while since I was last able to get some reviews out, as I’ve been involved in various projects which have proved quite time consuming. But finally, summer is here and I hope to be posting regularly again!

So here’s a review of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist.


It’s something of a truism to point out that historical fiction has been reappraised as a genre in recent years, with authors like Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters commanding the respect of critics and readers alike. What makes the new wave of historical fiction so special is the way it interrogates our relationship with the past. Rather than feeding us romantic, heroic, Walter Scott style narratives, contemporary authors look at history side on, inviting us to consider the minor narratives which are so often ignored or even annihilated by conventional readings of history. In particular, this includes a focus on the secret, the hidden and the repressed – on the way in which issues such as gender, sexuality and race interact with a general preconception of European/Western history as white, masculine and straight.

In this respect, Jessie Burton’s exquisite novel The Miniaturist is no exception. It is a story which the reader somehow unpeels or unwraps, each layer shedding yet more secrets. The literary equivalent of a Rembrandt or Vermeer, it is to the shadowy areas of Burton’s “canvas” that our eyes are drawn. What is it that the light is hiding? What ironies or subversions are hinted at?

It is 1686, and child bride Petronella Oortman marries into the Brandt household, her husband Johannes a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. Petronella (Nella) also encounters Johannes’ enigmatic sister Marin, whose piety and self-repression soon emerge as camouflage, enabling her to act out the role of a devout Protestant spinster. Bored and lonely, Nella sets about furnishing her dolls house – a wedding gift from Johannes – receiving parcels containing dolls and scaled down furniture from the mysterious Miniaturist. As the story unfolds, it seems that the Miniaturist has an uncanny knack of predicting – or possibly even controlling – the lives of the real house’s inhabitants.

The Miniaturist reveals how, even in  the most repressive of environments, space can be found for autonomy and self-awareness. The Miniaturist’s first message to Nella insists that she can challenge those conventions which restrict her as a woman and as a wife: “Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.” As readers, we might anticipate Nella’s emergence as that stock character in historical fiction: a romantic figure who finds release through love. Instead, this is a journey into independence and freedom. As the world about her starts to disintegrate, she becomes stronger, increasingly resilient and resourceful. In short, she becomes herself.

Just a joy to read. Perfectly paced, The Minaturist yields its secrets one by one, couched in a sinuous, lyrical prose. A beautiful book.