First published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 25 July 2014
London writer Jessie Burton’s debut novel plays at magic realism with a wavering touch and readers of literary fiction may find that their imaginations are required to work a little harder than is the norm.
It’s 1686. Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam at the house of Johannes Brandt, a stranger she has been made to marry. With romance on her mind, Nella instead finds herself thrown into the deep end of a dark new world brimming with secrets.
Serving the claustrophobic narrative beautifully is the length of time the reader must spend in the Brandt household; at least 90 per cent of the story unfolds there. It is a quiet, watchful, breathing, creaking place where the shuffle of a curtain, a cold draught or the hairs on the back of her neck are the only signs that Nella’s every move is being monitored from within the shadows.
Burton also messes skilfully with proportion: Nella reaches her hand out in the dark and is surprised to find a door handle so near. The house evades her.
With the house comes Marin, Nella’s cold sister-in-law. Nella’s loneliness and frustration peak as she discovers that her husband is largely absent and entirely unromantic and that the head of the household is in fact his implacable and enigmatic sister. But every character in this world, Nella included, has several metamorphoses and each time they re-emerge, we must give our vision a moment to adjust as our understanding of their reality shifts again and again (Marin is not as cold as she first appeared, Nella not as powerless, Cornelia the maid not as scornful and so on). Johannes himself is full of surprising indiscretions and fighting against his unthinkable fate is what eventually unites Nella with this odd semblance of a family.
This feeling of recurring realisation is echoed by the structure of the plot itself. Burton seems to have avoided an instantly apparent narrative arc: instead she drip feeds small questions, almost resolves them, then asks another, all the while giving the reader their fill of each new mystery while reserving enough answers to sustain their thirst. If there is a predominant story question it is concerned with the peculiar and subjective nature of freedom, and whether there is any hope of these oppressed creatures finding it.
The book’s title refers to a gift Nella is given by her new husband. It is a miniature of their house. Its detail is painstaking, its accuracy startling and its presence unsettling. Nella begins to correspond with the miniaturist responsible for the replica, requesting tiny objects to fill the house. It starts innocently enough: Nella distracts herself by filling it with the things her disappointing marriage has failed to provide (a decorative betrothal cup, a baby’s cradle).
But the miniaturist – who Nella soon discovers is a strange woman with a penetrating stare – begins taking matters into her own hands. Unprompted, she sends Nella miniatures of each member of the household, of private objects, of clues to how their stories will unfold. She is all-seeing.
Nella is both threatened and comforted by the miniature puppets. Burton has created a slippery, shifting world where nothing is as it seems, where entrapment is indistinguishable from escape and the hunters, from the hunted. Eventually Nella becomes just as watchful as the shadows around her and so begins the transition from powerless to sly, from puppet to master.
There are moments of crossroad at which the more cynical reader must make a choice: do we suspend disbelief? Do we go along with the notion that this local kook is capable not only of fashioning tiny lifelike dolls, but also that she is prophet-like in her craft? Can we buy that someone is accurately predicting the twists and turns of their lives (a tiny bump on the belly of one doll confirms a pregnancy, a red dot appears on another at the exact site of a stab wound).
Far-fetched it may be, but do yourself a favour and give in. If you let it, this richly layered world will grip you, make you want to come up for air and have you thirsty for the next twist (even the predictable ones are satisfyingly executed). Surrendering to this story is a powerful experience.