The Miniaturist: Magic, Piety, and the Pursuit of Profit in 17th Century Amsterdam

The Miniaturist: A Novel, by Jessie Burton, (Ecco), 416 pages

You know the kind of novel that leaves you crying and smiling, with you imagination soaring? The kind of novel that you don’t want to close, so when you get to the last page you find yourself leafing back to the opening again? Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is that kind of a novel.

Set in 17th Century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist depicts a society that is rigidly religious and tightly focused on the bottom line. Neighbors watch each other for transgressions that could carry criminal punishments: the making of gingerbread people, deemed too similar to Catholic idols, is forbidden. Sweets are eaten in secret to preserve one’s image of self-denial. At the same time, Guilds strictly enforce limits on the professions that can be pursued by individuals, bringing riches to the few and leaving most poor and unable to move to more profitable careers. In an afterward discussing incomes at that time, Burton tells us that “By the last quarter of the 17th Century, 0.1% of the Amsterdam rich owned about 42% of the total wealth of the city.”

This novel is set within one of the wealthier Amsterdam households, peopled by an interesting mix of characters. Nella, just eighteen and recently married, lonely in the city she’s just moved to; her husband Johannes, kind, but distracted; Marin, her sister-in-law, controlling, fiercely religious and determined to present the proper front to those around her; Cordelia, a surprisingly outspoken servant girl rescued from an orphanage; and Otto, Johannes’s manservant, originally from Dahomey, whose status as slave or employee or ward is unclear. The relationships among these characters are complex, all of them determined to hide parts of themselves from the others.

The time period and characters are fascinating in themselves, but Burton throws in a dose of magic (or is it menace?) in the form of a miniature cabinet given to Nella by Johannes and replicating in detail the home they live in. At first, Nella finds the gift insulting—a child’s toy given to a bride who should be treated as an adult. However, with little to do, she begins to order pieces for the cabinet from a local miniaturist. When her first order is delivered, it contains all Nella requested, but it also contains pieces she didn’t request, pieces that suggest their household is under close observation for purposes unknown.

I’m hoping that brief summary gives some sense of the pleasures in store for readers of The Miniaturist. The characters grow increasingly compelling as their secrets are revealed. The uncertainty about the cabinet at the center of the story builds steadily. Each chapter seems a new revelation or presaging, making this one of those books that you shouldn’t start late in the evening when you’ll be going to work the next morning.  I often divide books into two categories: those that one can put off reading until they’re issued in paperback and those that need to be read now, while they’re still in hardback. The Miniaturist is one of the latter. Don’t wait to give yourself this pleasure; pick up a copy as soon as you can and start reading.