It was the beautiful cover and intriguing title of The Miniaturist that caught my eye in the window of Waterstones. The eager recommendation of the cashier after reading the blurb, sealed its fate that I had to read it.
The novel opens at an easy pace, befitting of the chapter’s content. There are no introductions as such but you get a good sense of the types of people who surround our leading characters. Chapter one couldn’t have provided a more varied group of people. The nervousness of Nella Oortman is almost palpable, but the sense of intrigue remains constant throughout.
Burton invites the reader in with a haunting feeling of desolation. This is made all the more poignant by Burton’s use of the third person pronoun, you couldn’t get further away from knowing Nella and her sister-in-law Marin. For me this only made me want to dig a little deeper.
Nella’s venture into Marin’s privacy opens a new element of the novel. There is definitely more to Marin than her drab clothes and pious manner. There is an exotic and wild hidden persona, yet to be fully revealed. The so-far so slow pace of the book makes this thus far the most exciting part of the novel. Even more so than the arrival of the cabinet house, an exact miniature replica of the Brandt household.
Burton describes Seventeenth Century Amsterdam with vigour and the novel reads as reasonably well researched. Her depiction of the first feast Nella and her new husband attend together is a sumptuous but brief one.
I found the tone of the whole novel to be cold and distancing, coupled with the use of third person pronoun throughout- each character is always referred to by name- I felt as though I was forever being held at arm’s length, never being allowed close enough to the characters so I could never get to know them intimately. This is clearly a reflection on how Nella is feeling in her new and unwelcoming home with her forbidding sister-in-law. Just as this was not what I had anticipated; Nella’s new marital life is also not turning out as she had imagined.
Authors, in my experience, usually work very hard to do the very opposite of this approach adopted by Burton. They usually want readers to feel like you could be in the novel, whereas the style of The Miniaturist forced me to remain a reader, a spectator; rather than a participant in the novel. It is not at all what I expected. As I don’t come across this feeling often I would have thought that I would find it off-putting, but there was still enough plot and intrigue to retain my interest.
As the hidden magical elements begins to flicker to life, my anticipation to know what would become of the (creepy) miniaturised house and its supernaturally accurate furnishings grew. I was pleased when I finally found something I can relate to in Nella- her mixed feelings about the local parish church she visits. Burton gives the readers the sense that Nella doesn’t know how to feel about this building that is filled with the dead beneath her feet; and is grander than she is used too. I felt the same when visiting German churches some years ago. But once the chapter had moved on I immediately felt my connection with Nella had been lost.
At almost a quarter of the way into the novel (about page 141 in my copy), the most lively and plausible characters are by no means the focus of the novel. By page 176 you encounter some truly surprising twists, Burton is good at revelations but the magical element has still yet to be developed or fully explored; and it’s the lacking of this element that was so much promised and hyped up in other reviews I’ve read and promotional comments seen, that left me feeling extremely frustrated.
The feminist theme is not flaunted but nor is it covert throughout The Miniaturist, but it is a constant and evident element in Nella Brandt’s (nee Oortman) story. The rise and fall of the women in the Brandt household is matched only in the rise and fall of the pace of the novel. In my reading I found some chapters were a bit slow, but this added detail and context to the events of previous or forth-coming chapters. By no means does it have a constant pace, it makes for a more exciting novel to read in some respects.
Three quarters into the novel and I only just feel as though I’ve broken the surface with our main characters Nella and Marin. I’m afraid the novel will end before I’ve had a chance to really get to know them. I’ve seen them develop to some extent, become more “real”. Their back stories have been somewhat fleshed out, but as a reader Burton only offers flashes of who they are in that moment in time. Their strength wanes and they falter in their circumstances; at the same time my understanding of them falters too.
The Miniaturist is an enjoyable novel. Its themes are broad, in the context of Seventeenth Century Amsterdam, they are still relevant today. But I still couldn’t shake the constant feeling of the novel being very distant and disconnected. If this is what Burton intended then I must congratulate her. It was full of shocking twists and unexpected plot revelations, keeping the reader at arm’s length so consistently makes these inclusions more prominent, more shocking and harder to predict.
However, I personally found the book more interesting as a piece of historical fiction but not as a piece of magical realism. For me the magical element was just lacking too much, popping up at times too few and far between. Despite the comments of other reviewers, I don’t feel it is in the same league as Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. I feel as though the claims and comments from critics, especially those claiming the book to be full of “magical realism”, led me to have expectations that for me the book just didn’t meet. I expected far more than the novel had to give and thus I don’t feel I’ve been able to fully appreciate it on its own merit.
In this case I would suggest people fully let themselves be propelled towards giving The Miniaturist a go because of its beautiful and intriguing cover and the interest you generate from reading the blurb for yourself. Disregard all claims and critiques from the various newspapers and other authors.
The last 150 pages are far more engaging that the previous chapters, the plot thickens and surprise and heartbreak are around every corner. The pace is quickened to what felt like a breakneck speed- I was so keen to find out what happened next. It’s quite a contradiction to what I had until this point thought was a rather melancholy paced novel.
The summarise: The Miniaturist has a compelling cast of characters despite their elusiveness, a gripping plot even with the rather pedantic pace and a tone and atmosphere so gripping and haunting that you could easily imagine Danny Elfman writing a superb score for the film. You should aim to go into this novel with as little prejudice as you can muster, in the hope of enjoying it fully.
© Gemma Feltham 31/08/2014