AUGUST 25, 2014
ONE OF THE PLEASURES of fiction is to be a tourist — or, if one is very fortunate, to have a deeper, more intimate visit to a far-off place. The reader who chooses a book set in 17th-century Holland might reasonably expect to be taken back to that time, to be allowed to enter tall, narrow houses perched at the edge of a canal, to meet a woman dressed in sober black with an elaborate white ruff around her neck and learn about her life. She might anticipate the story of a marriage, reflected and distorted in the convex mirror of the writer’s mind the way the merchant and his wife are presented in the iconic portrait “The Arnolfini Wedding” by the Early Netherlandish master Van Eyck, an enduring image of social and commercial life at a moment when the Low Countries were adjusting to increasing power, wealth, and the stimulating cosmopolitanism of burgeoning international trade. The reader might be familiar with this era, perhaps from reading other novels such as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. She might expect a story set in the context of social disruption resulting from the Netherlands’ rise to maritime military and trading power over the course of the previous several generations, fueled by the accumulation of wealth harvested from exotic lands. And she might be led by the title of this volume, The Miniaturist, to hope for a jewel-like tale of the tiny hidden cogs and wheels of domestic life magnified under the loupe of the author’s observational and descriptive powers.
In all these respects the reader’s expectations would be satisfied by The Minaturist. Jessie Burton’s first novel is much like the miniature house that Nella Brandt, née Oortman, receives from her wealthy husband, the merchant Johannes, as a wedding present. It is Nella’s task to furnish and populate her small-scale home, just as it is Burton’s to fill The Miniaturist with characters and material specifics to bring her story to life. Unfortunately, like Nella’s toy house, The Miniaturist never quite feels finished. Its inhabitants’ lives are presented in admirable detail, but the seed pearls, the Rhenish wine, the world maps and silver plates are merely ornaments in a place that lacks the breath of life.
Nella is 18 when she arrives on her new husband’s Amsterdam doorstep with her trunk and her parakeet, Peebo, in his cage. Her mother, who arranged the marriage, hopes to see her daughter established in a wealthy and prestigious household — a striking contrast to the rural poverty of the family home (and rather an unlikely match, which is never sufficiently explained). But once the door is opened, the welcome Nella receives is cold. She is left to wonder at the strange new family she has joined.
Everyone loves a secret, and family secrets combined with a mysterious, possibly magical stranger should make for a juicy and suspenseful tale. But Burton’s plotting skills are not equal to her obvious gift for research, and her capacity to create physical spaces in the reader’s mind is much less well developed than her ability to describe material objects. The opening chapter, chronologically the end of the story, is confusingly abstract: the interior space of the church setting difficult to picture, the characters unnamed, and the action hard to follow. It feels freighted with significance, but the reader cannot begin to make sense of it. Even after finishing the book, it remains unclear.
That first chapter may be intended to establish a mood of mystery — who is the friendless unfortunate being buried under public scrutiny? Who are the girl, the serving maid, the woman in the choir stall? — a more vivid and evocative scene might have effectively achieved that goal. In fact, Burton often alludes to the mood of a scene or event rather than actually creating it within the story. For example, Nella’s frigid reception by her new sister-in-law is presented as menacing, but it is simply baffling. The strange objects that Nella receives from the mysterious miniaturist are supposed to feel threatening, even evil — has the maker the power of prophecy, or the ability to actually influence Nella’s life? But then, for no apparent reason, Nella begins to find them reassuring, even as events become increasingly dangerous. Sometimes the objects seem to reveal secrets the miniaturist could not possibly know, suggesting that the miniaturist is not only a consummate craftsperson, but also either foresees or influences events. At other times Nella appears to believe that there is an ordinary explanation. But the miniaturist’s magical powers are never confirmed, and no practical reason is ever offered. And although Nella’s repeated efforts to find this person lead us to expect some kind of plot twist or further magic upon revelation of the miniaturist, we never do meet the title character. The reader’s fascination with this unusual figure slowly erodes as it is blocked by the closed door of the workshop. It is hard to avoid the feeling that, in the end, the author was simply unable to conjure her own magician.
The Miniaturist can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a scary mysterious fairy tale or a more prosaic story of personal histories and human feeling. Of course, the best scary supernatural mysteries are really about human feeling, but The Miniaturist’s vacillation about whether the miniatures and their maker are supernatural or not undermines its power to evoke emotions. What we do see is Nella engaging in the ordinary — and very important — process of growing into womanhood as she faces a life different from what she had imagined, with a husband whose interests lie elsewhere and a strange household thick with intrigue and tension.
The Miniaturist falls short of its laudable ambition. The writing can be awkward (“Bravery in this city is so rare these days”), and sometimes actually incorrect (“[…] as if to ebb her grief”). Neither the plot nor the emotional content of the book is fully borne out by the action. For example, as the story unfolds, the reader is told that Nella increasingly relies on the miniatures for clues to her complicated situation, such as when she finds it difficult to understand her sister-in-law (which, the book suggests, is due to the many secrets in the family, although it is normal enough to need time to get to know one’s in-laws). Nella hopes the miniaturist will send her some doll or object “to elucidate this strange woman.” But while the miniatures sometimes echo events that have taken place, they never do give Nella any useful clues.
Overall, the book is insufficiently imagined, on both emotional and practical levels. We are told that Nella “has never gone out after dark in her entire life.” A farm girl has never gone out after sundown in winter to feed the cows or visit a neighbor? A few pages later a corpse bobs to the surface of the canal, and men must “hack at the ice to remove it.” How did it bob up if the surface of the canal is frozen? Several scenes later, Nella, who knows how animals reproduce, and who watched her mother give birth to two live and several dead children, is nevertheless entirely ignorant about the existence of the afterbirth. It is hard to believe, even if it is necessary to the plot.
Of course, if the reader were carried along by the story’s momentum, such details wouldn’t matter. But the plot does not sweep the reader along. It lags. For example, the family’s fortunes depend on Nella’s husband Johannes, a highly successful merchant with a brilliant reputation and many connections, brokering a sale. But in a turn of events mystifying to the reader, he dallies unforgivably, and then when he finally makes the effort, utterly fails. It seems our heroine could save the day, but it takes her several chapters to twig to the obvious solution. Burton then spends 20 pages on three separate scenes before Nella finally acts, slowing the plot to a tedious crawl.
For the fiction-tourist to whom a visit to 17th-century Holland appeals, complete with golden rounds of Gouda cheese, lush still-life paintings, and canal-skating urchins, The Miniaturist may well offer pleasure enough. With all its historical details, it is really the story of a young woman’s struggle to come into her own as an adult, an individual, and a member of a society fraught with contradictions. If only Burton had the muscle to push her text to fulfill the potential of its rich setting and thoughtful plot. Though she clearly has talent and drive, Burton’s grasp of her craft is not yet equal to her imaginative capacities.