Saturday 24 October 2015

New Book Review - THE MINIATURIST - by Jessie Burton

It is Amsterdam,1686, and young, innocent Nella has just married world-weary Johannes, a seemingly prosperous merchant trader. It is an arranged marriage so the two do not know each other.  But right after the ceremony, which takes place in Nella's village, Joahnes leaves his new bride to deliver a shipment to Venice, which will take him away for one month, and it is up to the bewildered Nella to make her way alone to his Amsterdam home after the month is up.

To compound the strangeness of it all, when Nella arrives at his house, which is one of the magnificent tall, terraced houses facing onto one of the canals in Amsterdam, she is greeted by, of all things, a partly open front door and she has no choice but to step inside. Only then does she come in contact with the other occupants of the house: Marin, Johannes' frosty sister, and the two servants, Cordelia and Otto. It is a less than friendly welcome, these three so obviously a tight-knit group, and when the illusive Joahanes eventually returns it is with Marin that he holds council whilst Nella is ignored, hidden away in her own, separate bedroom.

Gradually, Nella is drawn into life in the house and what we are presented with is a most bizarre portrayal of Nella's developing relationship with each one of them and her own growth in character and confidence.

They all have secrets, even the other characters in the novel, and some of these secrets prove to be very dangerous given the puritanical political system of the time, influenced by a calvanistic church, which is not only restrictive but exteremely barbaric. And nothing is as it seems at face value. For example, why does Marin wear beneath each of her austere black dresses a lining of sable fur and velvet? And is Jack London merely a delivery boy? As he plays an increasingly important role in the destiny of Johannes' household, we are presented with more questions than answers.

Central to the story is the large doll's house which Johannes has given as a present to Nella. A strange bridal present you might think and one that has Nella confused, particularly as it is a miniature version of  the house they are living in. Whilst she is not mistress of the main house, she can at least be mistress of this smaller version. She keeps this house in her bedroom and finds an advert for a miniaturist within the city who will make pieces for her doll's house, commisioning three small pieces: a lute (to represent the lute she played for Johannes before their marriage), a betrothal cup (to represent their marriage) and a box of marzipan (again to represent the marriage.)

When they arrive, delivered by the handsome Jack London, she is amazed at the elaborate craftmanship employed. But, to her surprise, there are another three, unordered items for her house: two wooden chairs with backs covered with green velvet and studded copper nails, a cradle, and two whippet dogs. And to compound the intrigue, the chairs are identical to those in the parlour and the two dogs are miniature versions of Johannes' two dogs, even down to the black spot on the belly of one of the dogs. Just how does the miniaturist know such details and what does the cradle represent given that Johannes has hardly spoken to Nella never mind touch her?

And further, unordered items continue to arrive for Nella's dolls house. Each one is very personal to the household, as if the miniaturist knows everything about their lives, not just for the present but also their future.And with each delivery comes a message for Nella, EVERY WOMAN IS THE ARCHITECT OF HER OWN FORTUNE being the first.

As the story unfolds, we see Nella become the woman that these messages indicate, not by choice but by necessity as she has to take charge of the household due to a series of tragic cicumstances.

Nella's search for the miniaturist finally comes to fruition as she stives to understand how she (yes, the miniaturist is a woman)  knows so much about them all. Can the unexplained be explained?

When I started this novel, I thought I wouldn't like it. For a start, it's written in the present tense and I've never read a novel in the present tense before. And secondly, the language is highly descripive and I thought it would be a barrier to the flow of the story.  But I suprised myself by adapting to both very quickly: the present tense makes the story fresh and immediate and I can see its advantages, (so much so that I've written this review in the present tense and will experiment with this style of writing in my own writing); and the descriptions add a richneness to characterisation and setting. It's such an intriguing story all round and I was soon drawn into the lives of Nella, Johannes, Cordelia and Otto, caring what happened to each of them so, yes, I can thoroughly recommend it.