Thursday 24 July 2014

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . . 
On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman knocks at the door of a grand house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. She has come from the country to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt, but instead she is met by his sharp-tongued sister, Marin. Only later does Johannes appear and present her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in unexpected ways . . . 
Nella is at first mystified by the closed world of the Brandt household, but as she uncovers its secrets she realizes the escalating dangers that await them all. Does the miniaturist hold their fate in her hands? And will she be the key to their salvation or the architect of their downfall? 
Beautiful, intoxicating and filled with heart-pounding suspense, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

The Miniaturist is Jessie Burton's debut novel and was published by Picador in hardcover on 3 July 2014.

The setting is Amsterdam in 1686 and Petronella (known as Nella) has arrived at her new home for the first time. She has recently married Johannes Brandt, but knows very little about him, having only met him briefly at their wedding ceremony.

Nella is greeted at the house, not by Johannes, but by his sister Marin and two servants. Marin is a domineering and possessive woman who thinks nothing of constantly interfering in the life of her brother and his new wife.

The Brandt family live their lives very differently, and Marin makes it clear that she is unimpressed by Nella's aristocratic background. The two servants are not how Nella expects servants to be; Cornelia is rude and cheeky and Otto is a freed black slave.

Nella's mother had made it clear what a wife could expect from marriage, but Nella's husband is not interested in her in that way at all, and Nella begins to throw herself into furnishing the wonderful miniature house that Johannes presents to her. And so, the Miniaturist of the title is engaged to send items to furnish the house and it is then that the mystery and intrigue about this family, and about Amsterdam begins.

Historical fiction is not my first choice genre, but every now and again, a book comes along that is set in an era that I rarely enter, in a place that I know little about and it is as if a spell has been cast on me and I'm transfixed throughout.  Jessie Burton and The Miniaturist has done this to me.

I have no idea if it is geographically or historically correct, nor do I really care. What I do care about is how the story made me feel, and how I was able to escape twenty-first century stress, and the horror that is going on in this world and immerse myself into Nella's world.

Amsterdam; I place I've visited once, and to be honest I thought it was all pretty tacky and not very nice - it was a flying visit to go to a Robbie Williams concert, many years ago and I've never felt any desire to return.  Jessie Burton's imaginative writing created a world of wintry streets and waterways; a city of intrigue and mystery, and I'm now hankering to go back and take a proper look around.

It is the characters in The Miniaturist that I loved the most, even the hateful Marin; a woman who surely has a hidden history that could be the basis of a whole new story?  Nella is sparky yet innocent and grows throughout the story to become a woman of force.

The intrigue and mystery is artfully done, and although there were aspects that were more obvious than others, sometimes the reader takes a little pleasure in working it out before the big reveal. However, there are many other twists and turns that remained a mystery, and this balances out the story perfectly.

There has been so much publicity about The Miniaturist, from the initial bidding war between publishers, to the marketing by Picador. The hardback has done extremely well so far and I was worried that I may be a little let down.  I certainly wasn't, in fact I was surprised by just how much I did enjoy it, given that a novel set in the 1600s would never be my first choice of book to read.

Jessie Burton has written a story that will interest and intrigue, in a setting that is wonderfully depicted and featuring characters who are complex but very believable.

Praise has to go to Katie Tooke, the Design Manager at Picador who has created the most wonderful cover for The Miniaturist - she actually commissioned a model maker to recreate the house, and designed the cover from that.  Katie has written a piece about the design on the Picador Blog.

My thanks to Sandra Taylor from Picador who sent my copy for review.

Jessie Burton was born in 1982. 
She studied at Oxford University and the Central School of Speech and Drama, and has worked as an actress and a PA in the City. 

She now lives in south-east London, not far from where she grew up.

For more information about Jessie Burton and The Miniaturist, visit her website
Follow her Pinterest page, and on Twitter @jesskatbee

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