I Just Finished… The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton 1

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.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

One thought on “I Just Finished… The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

  • suesgot

    I just lit­er­al­ly ripped the whole book apart, tore the pages in half and assigned it to the trash can — it upset me so much. I wish I had never start­ed read­ing it.
    Joannes was drowned because of his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and that was over 300 years ago. We’ve bare­ly pro­gressed and now we have this nasty pres­i­dent and his repub­li­can big­ots try­ing to recre­ate a his­to­ry that one would hope would never hap­pen again

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