By Jessie Burton
ECCO, $26.99, 400 pages
Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is a beautiful work of historical fiction; it’s a novel told with grace and simplicity. The story begins in 1689, when eighteen-year-old Petronella arrives at the doorstep of her new husband’s home. Recently married to Johannes, a successful merchant in Amsterdam, she finds her new household to be complicated and less than welcoming. As a belated wedding gift, Johannes buys Nella a large cabinet, in which the rooms of their own house have been recreated in painstaking detail. Nella contracts a reclusive miniaturist to help her furnish the cabinet, but the miniaturist begins to frighten Nella by crafting items she has not requested, which hint at secrets amongst her new family and friends – secrets that may destroy the people that Nella has come to care for.
“She remembers telling Johannes in his study how much he fascinated her. Looking at him now, those words hold true. His conversation and knowledge, his dry accommodation of the world’s hypocrisies, his desire to be what he is. He lifts his hand to the candlelight, and the strong, hard ridges of his fingers are beautiful. How much she wants him to live.”
This is a gorgeous work that looks at topics of race, class, sex, religion, and social expectations from an outsider’s view. Because Nella is from a small town, she is able to see the workings of the gold-hungry and religion obsessed city of Amsterdam in a way that the local population is unable to discern. The writing is extremely poignant, and the topics discussed are still issues we face to this day. A haunting tale, The Miniaturist is not to be missed.
Reviewed by Whitney Smyth