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The Miniaturist: A Treat to Read

Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is a work of historical fiction revolving around the life of Petronella “Nella” Oortman, an eighteen-year-old girl married to Johannes Brandt, a respected merchant. The story is set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam and is based very loosely on the life of the real Petronella Oortman, a wealthy woman who owned a beautiful ‘cabinet house’, i.e. a doll’s house in the form of a cabinet. Oortman’s dollhouse can still be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and was what inspired the book.

However, even the phrase ‘loosely based’ is an understatement as apart from the names of Petronella and Johannes, the story is entirely fictionalised and includes an element of fantasy. Indeed, to keep even those two names intact seems wholly unnecessary, as it adds nothing to the story but historical inaccuracy.

 

To put it concisely, it appears as though two plot points serve as the core of the plot: sugar, and magic, although one of these two is never really resolved. Johannes is primarily a sugar merchant, and the general consensus is that he is very good at what he does. His being chosen to sell the sugar of the Meermans couple – with whom his family shares a muddy history –  is one of the events that sets the story in motion.

 

The other is his wedding gift to Nella which is an intricate cabinet house, actually a copy of the very house they are all living in. As Nella sets about furnishing the house by purchasing various miniature props from the eponymous miniaturist, she starts receiving items she never ordered, including miniature representations of the people in her life. Gradually, she realizes that the deliveries are warnings of what is to come. While the premise is intriguing, it falls disappointingly flat in the end, because it is hardly explored, much less resolved. There is no explanation offered; the miniaturist herself, who could have been a very interesting character, is never fleshed out and remains nothing more than a plot point, and an unsatisfactory one at that.

 

The book addresses several issues such as the treatment of women, who were expected and even pressurized to marry well and manage the household and certainly not be involved in business or the likes. The character of Marin, Johannes’ sister, defies this norm by remaining unmarried and it is made clear that her reputation takes a hit because of it. She also has a deep understanding of how the business works and should be run, much to Nella’s surprise. Meanwhile another character, who comes into the sizeable inheritance of a sugar plantation upon her father’s death (in spite of the latter’s efforts to stop it), immediately relinquishes control of it to her husband, thus conforming to her society’s ideals. Homophobia, both institutionalized and otherwise, also plays an instrumental role throughout the plot, as does racism to a lesser extent.

Overall, The Miniaturist is a fast-paced and engaging book, if a little lacking in the conclusion. The majority of the characters are well-formed and believable. It is the kind of book you only really go through once, but that one time is enjoyable.

 

Edited by Priyanka Shankar

All images are curated by Sanjna Mishra

 

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