Despite the hype around Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist, general opinion seems to fall into two main camps: those that love it unconditionally and those that think it has some good writing but is a little unbelievable. The emotional journey of reading The Miniaturist is comparable to the emotional journey of its primary character: full of hope and excitement for the unknown at the start, but ending with heartbreak and disappointment.
The novel follows the newly married eighteen-year-old Nella Brandt, who moves to Amsterdam to live with her husband Johannes, a wealthy merchant with the Dutch East India Company, and his frigid sister, Marin. Although Nella’s husband seems to be uninterested in her, he presents her with a miniature replica of their home as a wedding present for her to decorate as she wishes. Nella finds and commissions a local miniaturist to make the tiny pieces to decorate her house. With the parcels, however, come extra unordered miniatures that look unnervingly similar to the furnishings and occupants of the Brandt household. As Nella learns more about her new household, the miniaturist and her creations seem increasingly sinister.
While this story sounds exciting and mysterious, it does not reach its potential and was rather underwhelming. From the blurb, the reader expects something akin to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, to which it has indeed drawn comparisons. The idea of a mysterious miniaturist with an uncanny ability to depict reality in her creations has the potential for an incredible display of imagination and creativity. However, instead of wonder and beauty the reader finds themselves with something closer to voyeurism and tragedy – which can be great, if that’s what you enjoy and expect.
Added to this is the fact that the mysteries set up at the start of the novel turn out to be quite disappointing, with the most promising one remaining unexplained with no hope of solution. The miniaturist could have been a much more prominent character, which could have added a great deal to the charm of the novel. Instead, Burton leaves her as a mysterious, shadowy side-line and forfeits some of the magic that the novel could contain. The miniaturist is seldom seen or explored in the novel except for the odd moment when Burton hints that she might be nearby somewhere. Although she is the titular character, that position is not related to her presence in the novel. Had Burton spent more time exploring her psyche, The Miniaturist might have been very different.
The same goes for most of the other characters; Burton creates a vivid setting for them but they remain in its shadow. It is clear that Burton has conducted very in-depth research about what Amsterdam might look like in the 1700s. Her imagery is clear and detailed. Unfortunately, she does not allow us the same detail with her characters’ inner lives. It is as if the story is taking place with the dolls in Nella’s miniature house and we are watching from the outside, able to hear and observe the characters’ actions but not to follow them too closely.
For example, we watch as Nella Brandt works her way admirably through each challenge presented to her, but she is generally alone in doing so and the reader is not exposed to her thoughts in the process. She has little to no relationship with any of the other characters and all attempts to develop them fall flat. It seems that the miniaturist would be her best ally and friend as she is the only person who really communicates with Nella, despite this being limited to vague one-liners appearing on the packages Nella is sent. Although we follow Nella’s journey through the novel and the various challenges and discoveries, we develop no relationship with Nella herself.
To be fair, although The Miniaturist’s marketing team missed the mark a little, the book is not entirely bad. Once you know what to expect, the story takes on the feel and atmosphere of a Tim Burton film. The Miniaturist has an enticingly dark, foreboding atmosphere and Burton’s writing is enthralling, if not fully fleshed. The pages seem to turn themselves as the mysteries unfold and the consequences are revealed; the story is compelling but the characters themselves are lacking in depth.
The Miniaturist is readable and will appeal to some, but cannot be enshrined as a future classic. Burton writes some lovely passages and includes great depth of research into the setting for the novel, but needs to add further flesh to her characters. Burton’s oversight in this area costs the reader the pleasure of really getting to know the characters, in particular the miniaturist whose increased visibility in the story could have added much charm and delight. Although Burton is beginning to make a name for herself with this debut, The Miniaturist has much unreached potential.