I Just Finished.. is a regular(ish) column by Jim which will appear shortly after a novel passes under his gaze. Which, given that there’s always at least one book on the go, shouldn’t be too infrequent. These are not reviews, though there might be some tonal clues as to awesomeness or awfulness (humble opinions are, of course, my own). What I’d like to do here is akin to what we’re up to with games on Ontological Geek, try to use this given art form as a springboard to riff on a theme, whatever that may be. Spoilers may well abound, be ye warned.
Amsterdam, 1686. 18 year old Nella Oortman has left her rural life to become the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Dashing her hopes of a cosmopolitan lifestyle, Nella finds herself living with overbearing sister-in-law Marin, nosey maid Cornelia, aloof butler Otto, as well as her curiously distant husband. Her new household contains secrets and dangers, and into the mix comes a fantastical element — a miniature model of the house which Johannes gives her as a wedding gift. A Miniaturist is employed to furnish the gift, but gradually the tiny creations she sends become worryingly accurate portents of future events. Whether these gifts mean good or ill remains to be seen, but it is clear that the miniaturist modeller has an uncanny view into the dangerously anti-Calvinist secrets Nella’s new family are trying to suppress.
The Miniaturist is a novel of facades, of creeping unknowns. Crucially, though, these are known unknowns (if you’ll allow the term), which is to say we are pointed in the direction of our ignorance. Clues are demonstrably hidden, answers semi-revealed. Nella’s sister-in-law Marin wears Calvinist-approved plain outer-garments while hiding below them decadent furs. Always the dichotomy of the surface and the beneath is played upon.
Accordingly, this theme within the surface-level plot and imagery of the novel is likewise to be found within its formal, structural roots. It’s not uncommon in the contemporary novel to find a rebellion against the conceits of traditional storytelling: against closure, resolution, come-uppance and reconciliation. The modern novel can and will reject the moralizing tradition of the story. And thus here, where Nella’s drift through her plotline at times screams out for the control of understanding, the power attributed to the reader through knowledge. What becomes her nigh-on worship of her miniaturist benefactor is born of the latter’s apparent omniscient knowledge of what’s going to happen next.
Perhaps appropriately, given the setting, the novel’s imagery mimics those Golden Age vanitas paintings of merchants and diplomats and so on, which place their subjects amongst an assortment of symbolically-charged objects, each hiding a meaning of its own. You know the type, the paintings that need a little essay to explain that the curtains represent the passing of life, the melon is sexually conspicuous, the drooping bagpipes best ignored. In the novel a dog at his master’s foot, a parrot, maps on the wall, a boardgame half-played, all these items are posed in the imagery and imbued with a meaning beyond their surface. Perhaps we understand them, perhaps not, perhaps we flounder disconnected from the true painterly message.
Early in the novel I unkindly tutted at what I thought to be clumsy writing. Burton seemed to be developing a bad habit of having Nella, her narrative voice, pore over and reveal the implications of her metaphorical symbols. Nella would wonder what this or that amongst the items and characters around her could mean. An intrusion into Marin’s room reveals an assortment of exotic items that completely rearrange Nella’s view of her sister-in-law, brazenly advertising their own signficance:
From her drab black clothes, Marin rises like a phoenix, enveloped in her nutmeg scent… Covered in the symbols of the city, Marin is a daughter of its power.
A flawed tendency in a protagonist, and perhaps a sign of a writer unconvinced by her own imagery or, worse, her reader’s ability to ‘get it’. But as the novel grows this bad habit unfolds into a sharp writerly strategy: putting in bold and underlining the fact that there are symbols here, metaphors and meaning; the writer reveals some of her hand to better emphasise the very hiddenness of the rest. Further symbols bob like icebergs on the surface of meaning, so much beneath unseen.
By keeping the facts that underpin her fictional world hidden Burton is consciously ambiguous as to interpretation. What for instance, are we to make of this eponymous ‘Miniaturist’, whose supernaturally accurate models reflect their subjects both in the present and future? It is unclear. In fact apart from some peripheral glances and a contextless prologue we never see The Miniaturist at all. The subject of the novel’s title exists, like much else, between the lines. But, (and here perhaps is the crux) the conscious part I mentioned a moment ago is clear — the decision to put a bloody great sign pointing to that very ambiguity as the novel’s title.
I dislike the phrase, but all this adds up to a page-turner. We read on, and on, in a vain hope that all will be revealed, all reconciled. It will not. There can be a sort of short-of-breath feeling when reading such a novel, as readers we crave information like air. What, after all, is a novel but information? Various solitary parts arranged just so to convey this, or that, or both. New, fresh information must be breathed as the old becomes stale and processed. Much of what we find here is a simulacrum of information, where it should satiate it merely increases the need. Taking in these floating signifiers is like breathing somewhat other that air.
Lo and behold, as if to mock (in every sense) our experience, Johannes is drowned. Caught and called up on crimes of sodomy (his distant nature towards his new young wife thus explained) he is given a show-trial and receives the local sentence: to be tied to a millstone by his neck and thrown into the Amsterdam waters. Nella is present, but cannot watch, and with her averted gaze goes ours. We are denied a view even of this moment to which the novel has so far built. Even as Johannes’ final words are spoken a breeze picks up and carries them away from Nella’s (and our) hearing. ‘They’re not bringing him back up’ says an onlooker, summing up the whole damned novel better in a sentence than I’ve done in 1000 words. Something’s down there, we know it is, but it’s not coming up.