As highly wrought as the ornate doll’s house on its jacket, Jessie Burton’s debut The Miniaturist opens in 1686 in the Netherlands. Petronella Oortman, an ingénue of good lineage but impecunious means, has been married off to Johannes Brandt, a wealthy, older merchant trader who lives with his sister, Marin, black manservant, Otto, and maid, Cornelia, in a richly appointed Amsterdam townhouse. When the 18-year-old Nella arrives, complete with symbolic caged bird, the house – like the city itself – quickly reveals itself to be creaking with drama and intrigue.
In addition to the UK and US editions, The Miniaturist will be published in 29 other languages – and it’s easy to understand the enthusiasm: this is an old-fashioned page-turner, with sudden twists, cliffhangers at the close of every chapter and an absorbingly unfamiliar and rich period setting.
The novel’s central conceit concerns a cabinet-house bought for Nella by Brandt – an exact copy of his Amsterdam property in doll’s-house form (Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house really exists, in the Rijksmuseum). Nella employs a mysterious miniaturist to furnish it, but soon finds that the items supplied begin to reveal secrets about the house’s inhabitants – secrets that will soon be uncovered, first by Nella herself, and then by the close-knit puritan society around her.
There is much to enjoy in the successive revelations of the plot, as well as a good sense of a city so familiar now as a friendly, laid-back European destination but then at the heart of a vast trading empire. The richly drawn interiors are nicely claustrophobic, while the flavours and smells of the food are both seductive and sickening. Burton is good at atmospheres, too, and much of the book is imbued with a sense of indefinable threat; the reader is never allowed to relax for too long before the ground once again shifts under their feet. Apart from Nella, who is rather underdrawn, the characters are boldly delineated. Brandt’s austere sister Marin – with her secret furs and bedroom full of maps – is a particularly fascinating creation. And there are interesting hints at an engagement with questions of female power and identity that one hopes Burton will take on more fully in her next book.
The Miniaturist is not perfect, however. Key scenes waver out of Burton’s control, leaving the reader unclear about what has happened and why; the flow of time is uneven, and some characters’ motivations (including that of the miniaturist) are unclear. A general sense of imprecision runs through the book, from plot right down to the level of metaphor and language: Marin collapses “like a particularly beautiful tree”; a baby “sallies a cry”; Nella “explodes her fury” in a letter, experiences “a cusping terror” and feels “differenced” by events.
To manage a little dwelling filled with tiny likenesses of people is, of course, a metaphor for the act of novel writing, and one’s tolerance (or lack thereof) for the doll’s-house conceit here may well correlate with tolerance for the author’s handling of her readers. Some may surrender happily to The Miniaturist’s opulent confines; others may find – like Nella when she goes with Brandt to the Guild of Silversmiths’ Banquet – that it is too rich, too disordered, and goes on for just a little too long.
The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, Picador RRP£12.99/ Ecco RRP$26.99 416 pages
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘Clay’ (Bloomsbury)