Dripping with Mystery – The Miniaturist Book Review
To be sure, The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is a compelling read, mostly for the layers of mystery that keep peeling away revealing even more mystery beneath, but also for its well-researched historical elements. The feel of late 17th Century Amsterdam is tangible – where strictly protestant, patriarchal burgomasters and guildsmen ruled, where everyone is both watcher and watched, spying on each other’s secrets, and where rumours spread far because “words are water” in Amsterdam. The danger in such civic behaviours in a god-fearing city can prove deadly, as this dark little story shows.
So where’s the fantasy in this otherwise mainstream piece of literary historical fiction? The Miniaturist falls into the oft eye-roll-inducing (for Muggles) realm of magical realism, and it is this fantastical element of the story that makes it most compelling. I’m not alone in this opinion. A quick scroll on Goodreads reveals most readers found the mystery of the titular character herself the most compelling element, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Who is this miniaturist, whose tiny figurines orchestrate the story in a fatalistic way? We get a good look at her, only once, very early in the story before we’re aware of her power. In a street scene she stares at our heroine, Nella, with “a calm, transfixing curiosity.” After that we only ever catch glimpses of her pale blonde head. But her influence is pervasive and magical.
Nella calls the miniaturist a prophetess, for with each new figurine Nella receives to fill her cabinet house – a near-perfect replica of the house she has newly settled in – a new prophecy is revealed. Another secret unearthed. Petronella, an eighteen year old innocent from the country just married, suspects her husband, the much older, successful merchant, Johannes Brandt, of keeping a very dark secret. His sister, the austere Marin, is intent on keeping that secret well hidden, for “One drop of rumour could drown us.” Of course Marin is not without her own dangerous secret. And in this story, as the punctilious Pastor Pellicorne likes to preach, “there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.”
This story is very much about secrets, and the dual natures of those who must keep them, revealing one side of their character to the world, while keeping the other well-concealed. A point that makes it a bit of a page-turner. But, as already stated, it is the enigmatic miniaturist that turns the pages quicker than all else. At one point I suspected Nella herself to be the miniaturist, in the style of Palahniuk’s Fight Club in which narrator and main character are jaw-droppingly revealed to be one and the same. Perhaps the events playing out within Nella’s cabinet house were simply manifestations of Nella’s subconscious mind that knew more than she realised. However that proved an overly imaginative suspicion on my part; my mind trying to outwit any traps the author had set for us, though the eventual reveal of the miniaturist’s actual name lends some weight to the theory nevertheless.
As Goodreads reviewers lament en masse, the miniaturist remains shrouded in the watery and dangerous mystery that is this novel’s theme. Readers will finish with more questions than answers. Lovers of tidy endings will find this irritating, but I rather enjoyed the aftertaste of mystery once closing the book. For readers still demanding to know more, I’d recommend re-reading the prologue, clearly told from our elusive miniaturist’s perspective, which reads more like an epilogue, but perhaps prologue is the rightful place, for the miniaturist is after all a prophetess.
Have you read The Miniaturist yet? What did you think of the fantasy elements?