Normally I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but in this case I find it impossible to fully express how I feel about this book without mentioning the ending. So if you haven’t read The Miniaturist yet and don’t want to know what happens then go away, read it and come back.
Let’s start with the things I really liked. The characters were compelling, flawed and real. The prose is beautiful. Jessie Burton has a gift of describing everyday things in a way that transforms them into something extraordinary. I think it is this quality that gives the entire story a feeling of surrealism. It does also mean that it starts off slightly slowly, but my advice is just to sit back and enjoy the language. The story soon speeds up.
So, what is the story? Nella, a nineteen year old bride, arrives at her new husband’s house in Amsterdam to take up residence. He is not there to greet her, instead she is met by his formidable sister, Marin, and the servants, Cornelia and Otto. It is not a warm welcome, nor does she get one from her husband, Johannes, once he returns. She is left to occupy her room and bed in solitary splendour. The only real attention Johannes pays her is when he presents her with her wedding gift- a cabinet containing a replica of the house. Nella does not like it, but after an argument with Marin she orders from a miniaturist several pieces of furniture for it that Marin will not provide her with in real life. The miniaturist duly sends these pieces, but also some others, which are strangely accurate. The rest of the story follows Nella in her new life and family, each major event finding an echo in the miniaturist’s exquisite work.
There are several twists in the story, but I can’t say any of them took me by surprise. It’s easy enough to guess that Johannes’s indifference to his bride arises from a preference for men. Also the hints dropped about Marin’s pregnancy are quite obvious. Although, I admit I didn’t guess the father! I don’t know if we are meant to guess these things or not, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story. But there are some things that did…
I don’t want to be overly critical here. It was a really, really good book. But the prologue- why, oh why are authors still writing them? This one is really confusing. I admit that my own assumption when I read it was that it was Johannes funeral, since Nella was clearly a widow. Reading the book with that assumption throughout made it very easy to guess that Johannes was executed, from the moment we find out that he was homosexual. It’s since been pointed out to me that it is in fact Marin’s funeral. But the fact that it so unclear and that I started with this wrong assumption (and we do try to work out what’s happening in a prologue, no matter how deliberately criptic) still ruined the story climax for me. I’m not sure if Jessie Burton has underestimated or overestimated her audience here!
The ending itself has no closure. Nella never gets to meet the miniaturist. Many questions go unanswered. I was left feeling unsatisfied. However, the world of The Miniaturist and the atmosphere created by it has remained with me, perhaps partly because of that. But it was the quality of the writing, rather than the story, which truly gripped me.
What did you think of The Miniaturist? Please post a comment and let me know!