I’m a fickle creature I’ll admit this, especially when it comes to choosing books based on their front covers. I’m familiar with the adage that, ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’, but a mere cursory glance at the cover of Jessie Burton’s novel, The Miniaturist made me want to immediately prise it from the shelves of my local charity shop and sneak it home. I wanted to own a book with such a beautiful cover but more than that I wanted to discover what lay within. Would the novel itself be equally as captivating and the answer is a resounding yes!
The Miniaturist is set in Amsterdam in the 1600’s. The tale is narrated by Nella, a young girl recently wed to a wealthy merchant. She arrives in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam to begin her new life. When her husband presents her with a wedding gift of a cabinet that is a miniature replica of their home, she realizes the tiny creations mirror what is happening within the household and appear to predict the future with alarming precision.
The fact that this is Jessie Burton’s debut novel is at times glaringly obvious. It’s clear that Burton’s done her research as the real attraction for me was the descriptive passages of Calvinist Amsterdam of that period. The novel races along leading the reader through numerous twists and turns as secrets are revealed and the tension is increased.
What I found intriguing was that the women were very much the stars of this novel. The men are fallible and far weaker than their powerful positions indicate. The miniature house Nella is initially so dismissive off becomes the making of her, for it is only when she begins to take control of her life through her contact with the elusive miniaturist does she start to develop agency of her own.The women hold court. But this also happens to be one of the problems the novel suffers from. I found it hard to believe that these women would have been allowed as much power as they seemed to have, especially Marin, Johannes sister. Then there’s the figure of the miniaturist who meant to be elusive but at times the whole set-up felt implausible as did the central relationship between Johannes and Nella. Many a time I found myself having to ignore the niggling voice inside my head that said, especially towards the end, this doesn’t ring true.
Rather excitingly the BBC has adapted the novel into a three-part drama starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Romola Garai. “The assembled cast is perfect to the vision I had in my mind’s eye in every way,” said writer Jessie Burton.
Adapted by John Brownlow, “The Miniaturist” is directed by Spanish director Guillem Morales who recently worked on The BBC’s Decline and Fall as well as the feature film Julia’s Eyes.