RAD Book Club review: The Miniaturist

21 Mar 2018

RAD Book Club’s latest meeting was about The Miniaturist, an engaging exploration of history, drama and suspense. It is the first novel by Jessie Burton and was inspired by a doll’s house in the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam.

Set in late seventeenth century Amsterdam, the novel follows Nella Oortman, an 18-year-old girl from the countryside. Having married recently, Nella comes to Amsterdam to live with her husband Johannes Brandt, a rich merchant and member of the Dutch East India Company. The reader is introduced to a household populated by secrets, lies and mysterious objects among which Nella will have to find her place. Domestic tension is caused by Johannes’ controlling sister Marin and the servants, Otto and Cornelia, all of whom the reader soon suspect have much to hide.

After an initial refusal to acknowledge his wife, Johannes presents her with a doll’s house: an exact replica of the house in which she now lives. It is this replica which is to become the theatre in which the drama takes place. In this estranged environment, Nella decides she wants to add figures and objects into the house. Following an entry in Smit’s List, a book Marin gives to her sister-in-law, Nella is able to source objects from a miniaturist’s workshop on the Kalverstraat. Following this initial request, however, more unrequested objects arrive for the house replica, which suggest that someone has an inexplicable and deep knowledge of events within the household.

The general consensus was positive; we appreciated the way the author described places and presented scenes and the references to trade, travel and religion engaging as they offered a rich picture of Amsterdam at that time. In addition, some mentioned that the book was easy to read and that a sense of intrigue and suspense permeated the whole narrative.

Another aspect some of us liked is the fact that the book does not shy away from adversity and that the end presents the tragic consequences of some of the characters’ actions. However, many of us felt that somehow most of the plot is left unresolved and a lot of the book is ambiguous or inconclusive. We also assumed that the book would follow a line of intrigue and an exploration of the supernatural, and were disappointed when this was not followed through and the plot took a different turn instead.

Much of the discussion was spent asking questions about aspects of the plots and the characters’ reactions and behaviours, which seemed to us to belong to the twenty-first century and to be out of place in the Calvinistic climate of seventeenth century Amsterdam. Whilst we were able to speculate about the answers to our questions, none were found in the text and many of us felt this ambiguity to be an oversight rather than a deliberate mystery. Some of our reasoning led us to realise that there is an even darker thread to the narrative than is at first apparent; the women in the novel are still entirely dependent on Johannes, as the servants are on their masters and mistresses and so what might seem like open-mindedness on the part of some characters would actually more likely to have been because they had little other option to comply.

We also considered that plot and story lines were not fully developed as there were so many shocking revelations (one member likened it to a seventeenth century Jeremy Kyle episode!) taking place at once that, perhaps not intentionally, some of the purpose and momentum was lost. This led for some of us to disappointment, as we thought the book is the result of a brilliant idea, with strong symbolic images and plenty of factors to play with, which is not fully realized.