Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton


    Title: The Miniaturist
    Classification: Adult Fiction
    Genre: Magical Realism/Historical Fiction
    Format: Hardcover; 416 pages
    Publisher: Ecco (August 26, 2014)
    ISBN-10: 0062306812
    ISBN-13: 978-0062306814
    Author's Website:  http://www.jessieburton.co.uk/
    Notes: I borrowed the book from the library.



A young bride journeys unescorted to her new home across the country to Amsterdam. When she arrives it is not her new husband, Johannes, who greets her, but his sister, Mira. Nella quickly learns things are not as they should be as her husband all but ignores her and her sister-in-law holds the purse strings and maintains command over the household. Secrets and mysteries abound and Nella is left feeling like an outsider, and while she's surrounded by people, she has never felt more alone. When her husband gives her a cabinet house for a wedding present, she's insulted and sees it as something one would give a child. At eighteen, she's definitely no child and she quickly wonders if he sees her as just another beautiful thing he's collected over the years. But strangely and surprisingly the cabinet becomes her focal point as the miniaturist whom she hires to fill it reveals things about the household that Nella knows nothing about, sometimes eerily predicting things before they happen. Is the miniaturist a friend or foe? Will she be the one to help Nella find her place or perhaps lead her to her doom?

“How can this house of secrets ever be called a home?”



This was a delightful story cleverly written and filled with rich symbolism, unexpected twists, and mystery. I love how the beginning is the end and the end is only the beginning, at least for Nella. The story is set in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, which was touted to be Amsterdam's Golden age. An age when "ships from the city sailed to North America, Indonesia, Brazil and Africa and formed the basis of a worldwide trading network. Amsterdam's merchants financed expeditions to the four corners of the world, and they acquired the overseas possessions which formed the seeds of the later Dutch colonies."* The people of the time were under the control of the Burgomaster (aka mayor) and a body of regents with control over all aspects of the city's life, and a dominant voice in the foreign affairs of Holland. At the time of the story, Amsterdam was just coming into its own.

Nella's husband, Johannes, is a successful merchant with reputations of always being able to move his merchandise at a good price. He's considered one of the wealthier people in the area, and that is at the root of what ends up happening. Nella's new household is full of secrets to which she is not privy. Slowly she starts to uncover the secrets of those she lives with and, as she does, things begin to fall apart. Nella feels from the very beginning very powerless, as woman don't have a lot of power in the seventeenth century. Divorce is unheard of and once you’re married, you pretty much have to accept your fate--your bed, as they say, is made.

The role of the Miniaturist is an uncertain one from the very beginning. With each new delivery, items which Nella hasn't asked for are included with a note. Curiously, in the first interaction between Nella and the Miniaturist, the Miniaturist talks of herself in first person. "I FIGHT TO EMERGE."  Later she gives what appears to be a warning, "NELLA: THE TURNIP CANNOT THRIVE IN THE TULIP’S PATCH OF SOIL." This makes Nella wonder if she's the turnip or the tulip? I personally like the use of tulip as "tulip mania" was said to have occurred right around the time period this book took place. It was a time when tulips were a highly sought after commodity and worth quite a bit of money, but shortly thereafter plummeted in price because the market didn't reflect the true price of the item. The situation before prices plummet is sometimes referred to as tulip or an economic bubble. I can't help but feel this was a bit of foreshadowing on the author's part as to what was to come, not so much in a literal sense but in a figurative one. After all, bubbles do tend to burst.

At another point the Miniaturist says, "THINGS CAN CHANGE". This phrase reminded me of a quote from Dr. Seuss' The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” Both are hopeful, both say change is possible, and both state the obvious--that things need to change to get better. It made me wonder if the author was also making a statement that while things have changed from the seventeenth century to the present, have they really changed enough? Have we really made that much progress in the time from one to other? After all, bigotry still exists, people are still not accepting of those who are different or don't conform to society's beliefs, and people still envy those who have more.

Overall, I gave this book 4 1/2 out of 5 roses. It had a good pace, was smartly written, and kept my attention throughout. I can understand why this book has received so much attention. I'm sure there are things (symbolism and foreshadowing) within it that I didn't catch upon my first reading. The mystery of the Miniaturist and the secrets of Nella's husband's family kept me entertained and intrigued. I recommend reading the beginning a second time after finishing the book to know the true ending. I rather like how towards the end of the book, Nella figuratively finds herself and understands what the Miniaturist was trying to do. I enjoyed how the author sewed this tale together because it made me feel as though I was a part of it. More importantly, I liked how the book lingered on with me after I finished it. It’s the type of book that makes you ponder and think and, in my opinion, those are the best kind.
* Found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Amsterdam

Notes to Keep You in the Know:
Today, "'tulip mania' is used as a metaphor to describe an economic bubble. People start investing in a particular asset in large quantities because of positive sentiments about it. This pushes the prices of that asset to very high levels. After reaching a peak, prices suffer a sharp fall due to an extensive sell off, leaving the asset holders bankrupt. These assets are metaphorically called tulips."
Found at http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/definition/tulip-mania

An interview with Jessie Burton done by BBC News 24:

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your review. I'll try my library, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a rather unique book. I hope you love it as much as I did.

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