Review of The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton

This is an intriguing book but I found it ultimately disappointing. Set in Amsterdam during the 17th century it tells the story of Nella, an initially na├»ve country girl trapped in a marriage of convenience to a wealthy merchant. The author admirably conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of a city in the grips of extreme puritanism and Nella’s desire to become a ‘proper’ wife and to fit into this society. Little by little we come to understand that her husband, Johannes, is hiding a deep secret and that he is in rebellion against the laws and customs of the time. He is shown as an attractive man, but Nella cannot understand why their marriage is not consummated.

Another character who plays an important part in the story is Nella’s sister-in-law, Marin, who has been used to running the household and seems to resent Nella’s arrival. She appears to be a very strong personality but she, too, has a secret. As the story progresses we see these two strong people slowly disintegrate under the blows of fate, while Nella grows into someone capable of taking over her husband’s business and coping with, first, the death of Marin in childbirth and then the execution of Johannes by drowning.

So far, so good. The characters are believable and we become involved with their fates and the slow transition of Nella from a rather pathetic little girl to a strong woman is well portrayed. But here is what I find is the weakness of the book. Early in the story, Johannes buys Nella what amounts to an elaborate doll’s house, which is a miniature copy of the house she now lives in. Nella see an advertisement by the miniaturist of the title and orders some pieces of furniture for it. From then on, more and more items arrive, unordered, and each one shows an uncanny knowledge of the household. Later tiny dolls representing Nella and Johannes and Marin appear and the miniaturist appears to be able to predict what is going to happen to them. Nella makes repeated attempts to contact this mysterious person, who is apparently female, but only catches tantalising glimpses of her.

All through the book I waited to discover who this person is and how she knows so much, but the changes in the miniature dolls, echoing or foretelling what is happening to their real life counterparts, became more and more inexplicable and ultimately unbelievable. The book ends with no resolution to the mystery and I found this most unsatisfactory. If an author chooses to present her readers with a mystery at the start of a book, I feel we have a right to some explanation by the end of it. Did the author herself have any answer?The use of the miniatures is a clever plot device, but ultimately I felt Burton was cheating. There seems to me to be a trend in modern writing to introduce supernatural elements into otherwise realistic stories in order to add twists to the plot, but personally I think this is illegitimate. It is a pity, because the book stands on its own merits and does not need this extra elaboration.