I decided to start 2015 by reading one of the most hyped and talked about debuts of 2015, The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Picador). It's currently sitting at the top of the paperback charts in the UK (over 21,000 copies sold last week!) and was recently awarded the Specsavers Book of the Year at the National Book Awards, won by popular vote. I downloaded it to my Kindle on New Year's Day and away I went.
The Miniaturist is a long book that feels short. One of those fat 500+ pagers that flies by. I seem to read e-books faster than paper books anyway but devoured this in just three or four gluttonous sittings. Though devoured is maybe too loaded a term, suggesting that I was ravenous for it: I ploughed, I raced, I rampaged. Whatever, I read quickly. And I was keen to get to the end, eager to know what would happen. Which leaves me wondering why my reaction on turning the page was a bit... meh. Something hadn't clicked in place, despite the way the book had consumed me with its enormous promise. I felt like I had run a race only to discover there was no race to run. Or, sticking with the eating metaphor, that I had eaten a banquet only to find myself still hungry.
Let's start at the beginning, in 1686, with an 18 year old country girl on her husband's doorstep. Petronella Brandt, formerly Nella Oortman of Assendelft, has arrived to join the man she has married in his grand Amsterdam home. Johannes Brandt is a wealthy merchant, a partner in the VOC, and twenty years her senior. They have met exactly twice. Once when he visited her mother's house to hear her play the lute; and again when he married her. Nella's family name is old and respected, but her father's debts and early death have left them poor. She arrives on Johannes' doorstep with nothing but her pet bird Peebo and romantic dreams of married life.
Thoughts of romance are rapidly soured by Johannes' absence and the presence of his dour unmarried sister Marin. Marin appears the very picture of a good Dutch woman: swathed in black, abstemious and reserved, reading to her household from the Bible and eating copious amounts of herring. The household is completed by the maid Cordelia, who is saucy and spiky, and Otto, a former slave, who disconcerts and fascinates Nella in equal measure. Beloved Peebo is confined to the kitchen, the doors and windows are always closed and Nella's room is hung with morbid still lifes of dead birds and rotting fruit. Every cushion and bit of fabric in the place is embroidered PB, her new initials. It is not the Amsterdam life she had imagined for herself. When Johannes finally does return home days later he brings her a strange wedding gift - a great, rich dollshouse that replicates Nella's new home - and then proceeds to ignore her.
This opening gambit is rich and fleshy on the page, perhaps frequently revisted during the editng process. Burton's writing is memorably lilting and precise, and the characters pop out well formed. Nella's uncertainty with her unfamiliar role in the city, her naivety about the duties of a wife, her hopefulness, all ring true to her situation. Her reaction to Johannes' gift of the dolls house is well pitched. She is fascinated by its decadence - he boasts it cost 30,000 guilders - but horrified to be given a toy, a miniature world for a child to practise at being a woman. It offends the sense of maturity that she tries to assume as a married woman.
With nothing else to do, Nella seeks out a miniaturist and sets about furnishing the house. From here on out the bright fabric of the book starts to fray. The miniaturist fulfills Nella's commission but also sends her unasked for items - exquisite exact replicas of furniture in the Brandt house - and strange messages. When Nella, puzzled and concerned for the privacy of her new home, asks the miniaturist to stop, she receives yet more disturbing items. An empty cradle; perfect little dolls of herself, Marin, Johannes, Cornelia, Otto and others; a little green bird. Nella begins to believe that the miniaturist knows far more about the Brandts and their inner lives than she knows herself. In a city where neighbourliness is a byword for spying on one another, Nella feels increasingly watched and scrutinised. Her new life begins to unravel and the miniaturist's strange riddles start to seem like prophecies.
What follows is increasingly scandalous and histrionic as Nella is caught up and implicated in Johannes' and Marin's secrets. And she adapts, and adapts, and accepts, and adapts, so much so that she starts to lose that individual shape she had. The petulant 18 year old we first met displays anachronistic acceptance of moral taboos, strange presence of commercial mind and an unearned familiarity with the political and social landscape of a city she has lived in for all of two month. Nella becomes as brazenly modern and brave as the twisting plot requires. Despite being constantly on the verge of an emotional collapse she manages to remain upright and in control. The careful world building of the first 100 pages falls away, and what is left are the bare lineaments of the plot, which look much less artful without their seventeenth century clothes.
The miniaturist herself - because it is a woman - is the great oddity of the book. My most favourable reading of her is that she is a metaphor for the novelist herself. Nella conjectures at one point that this shadowy figure is in control of the whole novel, and is moving everyone like one of her little puppets; she doesn't just see the future, she makes it happen. Always barely glimpsed in the crowd and impossible to pin down, she is as powerful and as beguiling as a god. But then Nella discovers something so prosaic about her that it becomes difficult to reconcile her special powers of prediction and vision with her ordinariness. The novel edges uncharacteristically towards historical fantasy.
It's a shame, because the story of the Brandts' strange and restricted lives would be far more interesting if the mystery of who the miniaturist is never came into it. There are plenty of strong thematic currents in the setting and the characters to work at. The suffocating moral atmosphere of Amsterdam, strangely combined with its wealth and worldliness; the smallness of Nella's domestic world in comparison to the wide world that brings Johannes' wealth back to it; the devastating limitations of being a woman in this context. Any or all of these would have benefited from the same focus bestowed on the miniaturist herself.
In the end it comes clear what she is for: she is Nella's feminist fairy godmother. I never thought I would complain about a novel being too avowedly feminist, but The Miniaturist beats its characters and setting to death with its determination to deliver Nella from the constraints of her social situation and point to a better future for women. Obviously there is no obligation for fiction to be subtle about its stance on privilege or prejudice, but The Miniaturist sacrifices all the delicacy of the world it has built for it. It is the equivalent of scrawling six foot high slogans all over a reproduction Dutch Master. Perhaps that is the point? If so, well and good, but it didn't work for me. I should have cried at the end, because what happens is devastatingly sad, but instead it left me feeling lectured and slightly cold and sure that Burton could have written this book differently and better.
Read on Kindle, bought by me from www.amazon.co.uk.