Nothing is as it seems
Author: Jesse Burton
„There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed...”
They say never to judge a book by its cover. In some cases that may be right, but in most it’s the cover that first draws your attention and makes you notice a certain book among many of its kind. The cover in itself is a medium through which the publishing house and the author make a bid for your time. It works the same way that packaging would and when you find yourself groceries shopping and don’t have a set list in mind the fanciest, most colorful packaging will catch your eye and it will make you buy that product.
The same happened to me a couple of years back when I first saw the cover of Jesse Burton’s The Miniaturist. There stood an image of a woman with a whole world projected on her dress, as if almost lying at her feet. The description sold me on the book even more as it foretold of secrets, darkness, and hidden dangers.
„Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?”
So bated by curiosity I started to read the book which brought me back to XVII century Holland and the new world of eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman, the new wife of one of Amsterdam’s finest merchants. But as Nella leaves behind the old world of childhood in hopes of forging one as a mistress of the house, secrets start to unfurl in the dark and in the streets of the town.
Viewed mostly as a decorative new addition to the household, Marin, the sister in law, is the one that acts like the lady of the house keeping all affairs in order while Johannes runs about the world seeing to his trades. Frustrated by being left alone and unnoticed for so much time, young madam Oortman receives as a wedding gift from her husband a miniature of their own house to use as practice for running the actual house one day. Not at all impressed but wanting to go along with it Nella starts to populate it with different objects ordered from the town’s miniaturist. But the parcels that come back to her with objects and miniatures of people she knows always include more items than requested. This odd habit triggers a search by the heroine to find out the true intentions of the artisan as the objects end up being omens. But all the guessing in the world couldn’t have prepared Nella for what was about to come and the secrets that were finally revealed about the people in her house or the not so secret and puritan machinations of Amsterdam society. There is a price to pay for being different and all the gold in the world can’t save you from the wrath of God or of the men that use his words as swords of justice. All in all, after a turbulent ride, navigating the waters of her own life and those of the city Nella comes out on top to fight another day.
The hidden intricacies of Burton’s world are as lovely as Dutch lace – some events are opaque, closed to the eye while some are filled with space in order to relieve some of the darkness and heaviness of events. But as lovely as they may be they lack depth. The characters are two-dimensional; so much is left unsaid about them and their inner world. Even Nella as a main character lacks the layers that would make her more fascinating and less petulant. Marin with all her secrets and contradictory statements and gestures is nothing more than a fleeting actor on a chessboard. At the end of the book I was left wondering was it the purpose of the game they all played. Was it a lecture in punishment? Or was it just a collection of bits and pieces put together with seams showing?
What is interesting is XVII century Amsterdam with its religious doctrines, forbidden liaisons, and economic prosperity that always seems to hang by a thread. Initially I imagined a lighter tone to the book, some sort of a joke or entanglement that would eventually be sorted out and everyone would live happily ever after. But I was wrong and I can’t say I was disappointed as the fates of everyone involved were dealt with in a way according to their character and to the times they lived. But even so I still had the feeling that the book was missing something and that all its beauty was just a clever way of distracting the eye from what wasn’t there – the glue that could have made out of the book something more that a chase against time to find a solution to an unsolvable problem.
Even so enjoy this Dutch delicacy of a story, with its sweet-sour taste and myriad of secrets!
The game of light and shadows that the author plays with the story and the secrets of everyone involved.
The shallow crafted characters that don’t seem to have any other purpose than to advance the story. The cruel fate of Johannes and Marin.
For all those who enjoy historical fiction.