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Their Secret Miniature Lives

Amsterdam museums have luxurious doll houses on display preserved from the wealthy merchants of the previous centuries. The miniature replicas of actual burgher dwellings fascinate no less than the very mastery of craftsmen. And there’s always a scent of mystery around them – exactly like in a debut novel by Jessie Burton The Miniaturist.

If you’re observant enough, you’ll notice that the novel actually starts with its ending. Though without any names given, suspense clings in the air – all the reader is certain about is that someone is going to die. Then the plot travels back in time to the events that started three month in advance in mid-October, 1686.

A young country girl Nella Oortman comes to Amsterdam to join her husband – a well-known successful merchant Johannes Brandt. There is no love, just an arrangement between the families with no proper wedding and not yet a proper wedding night. Moreover, Nella is not greeted by her husband at her new home. In fact, he’s not even home. And all Nella gets is a cold unfriendly welcome by her sister-in-law Marin.

Instead of turning into a real house owner, Nella feels that the household management is under total control by ascetic and senseless Marin with the help of two unusual servants: a manservant, liberated slave Otto brought from oversees by Johannes, and maid Cornelia, an orphan taken into the house, who feels free to comment on things and doesn’t consider herself inferior to Nella.

Frightened and intrigued at the same time, Nella impatiently waits to start her life as a true wife, however Johannes is almost always not at home and never in his wife’s bedroom. Even his wedding gift is a great disappointment to Nella: it’s a miniature cabinet house, exactly as theirs, only needs to be furnished. Nella considers it as “a monument to her powerlessness, her arrested womanhood.”

Suppressing her feelings, Nella finds a miniaturist for her cabinet and orders some pieces of furniture. When the order arrives, she is stunned by the craftsmanship. But soon new parcels continue to find way to Nella’s house, though she has never asked for any new items. They are perfect copies of not only the real objects, but the house inhabitants as well. Nella tries to get in touch with the miniaturist, however, everything she manages to know is that the craftsman is a she who never opens her door.

The contact with the miniaturist and placement of the first order gives a kick to a tragic snowball of events. The mysteries of the house pop-up open to Nella one by one, starting with Nella eye-witnessing her husband’s gay nature (which the reader might have guessed anyway). Not to mention that in those times sodomites were sentenced to death by Calvinist burgomasters in Amsterdam.

However, all hardships Nella encounters do not break her spirits, though she obviously has a too modern mindset for the 17th century young country girl. Instead of reporting Johannes to the burgomasters and fleeing back to her mother, she shows empathy towards her husband situation and tries to defend him.

The whole family depicted in the novel looks non-conventional in Amsterdam, the city which “craves certainty, a neat passage through life, guarding the comfort of its money with dull obedience.” Johannes – a gay philosopher, breaking city rules and following his inner self; Marin – a strong feminist, a household manager who has refused to marry just because she wanted to be single; Otto, a liberated slave, still encountering racist attacks from the burghers but remaining loyal to his master family; Cornelia, a spying maid who keeps her mouth shut and does not avoid acting cool; and finally Nella who at first seems like a total misfit to this Amsterdam merchant family but who is the only support to it in the end.

They all look like descendants from the centuries to come and their motives are unconvincing because the characters are not profoundly developed and left rather shallow. Even the ending leaves the reader clueless: what is the role of the miniaturist in the unfolding of events? Was she a prophet, a spy or just an ordinary beholder of the inevitable?

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