Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist is a story of a naïve, young country girl about to discover the complexity of human relationships ripples beautifully with undercurrents, secrets, hidden histories and inexplicable mysteries.
Country girl Nella Oortman arrives at her new husband's house with hope in her heart and a birdcage on her arm. Outside, it's a warm October afternoon in 1686, with beautiful stately homes reflected in the sludgy water of Amsterdam's Herengracht canals. Inside, there's a watchfulness and the absence of Johannes Brandt, her rich groom, one of the wealthiest merchants in a city obsessed with guilders.
Instead, Nella is cornered in the elegant hall by his snippety sister Marin, the maid Cornelia, who "pins her with an unfriendly grin", and Otto, the manservant who is "dark, dark brown everywhere – all unending, dark brown skin… Nella has never seen such a man in her life". Johannes is about his business, wheeling and dealing and seemingly trying to sell a fortune in sugar, a contentious commodity, sweetly luxurious but indelibly tainted by slavery. Brandt's task is trickier still: the sugar loaves belong to Agnes and Frans Meermans whose history with the Brandts is far from easy.
Jessie Burton delightfully sets the scene for a novel that ripples with undercurrents, secrets, hidden histories and inexplicable mysteries. Naïve Nella is about to learn the complexities of human relationships and her education begins with the arrival of her wedding gift, a hugely expensive dolls house made of pewter and elm and an exact replica of her new home.
There's a curious motto written on the wrapping paper: "Every woman is the architect of her own fortune". As well as the lute, with real tuned strings, a tiny block of marzipan and the cup, there are also two exquisite wooden chairs, a miniature match of the ones in the salon downstairs, a "suggestive" cradle made of oak and eerily perfect models of the household dogs.
More furniture and puzzling mottos arrive and, worryingly, deadly accurate miniatures of Nella and the others. It is as if the miniaturist has an uncanny insight into the topsy-turvy Brandt household and the complex web of desire, spite, lust and love that shimmers and simmers between the eight principle characters.
Burton's tantalising debut is beautifully poised, exquisitely detailed. She delicately plays out the drama inside the house and deftly describes the dangerous encroachments of the outside world, from the machinations of the miniaturist, with her "strange alchemy of craftsmanship and spying", and the murderous hypocrisies of a supposedly pious society.
There is an overwhelming sense of suspense as Nella is "watched and guarded, taught and taunted" but, by the end of this powerful debut novel, she faces an uncertain future with a clearer sense of her own hard-won strength.