There’s something amazingly evocative about seventeenth century Holland. Years ago, Tracy Chevalier’s lustrous, perfectly balanced Girl with a Pearl Earring eddied up a gleaming historically rich world which has stayed with me in a way that few location-period pieces have managed, admittedly helped by the visual language of Vermeer.
Now, Burton takes on a similar setting in The Miniaturist, the tale of a newly-wed country girl come to 1686 Amsterdam to take up her position as wife of a prosperous trader. The title refers to the elaborate doll’s house gifted to Nella by Johannes, her new husband, as an apparent compensation for his lack of contact and interest. As Nella is sent mysterious miniature figurines which reflect and even predict happenings in the household, she becomes intrigued.
It’s a likeable book and an impressive debut (though the associations that have been drawn with Donna Tartt are laughable. This is no Goldfinch). Much of the pleasure is in the close writing – the author herself has a miniaturist skill, observing interiors and setting in detail. It’s a different world to the luminous, lyrical Delft of Girl with a Pearl Earring – Burton’s Amsterdam is a darker, colder, richer and more haunting city, with a menacing hand (of power, of rivals) never far off. It’s an imperial, complex and cultured city which is as much of a character as the household members and Burton vividly depicts the way of life, from the exact, well-flavoured foods to the structure of the household to the pets.
The most successful human creation in this world is Marin, the sister of Johannes – a repressed, strict, cold woman with a rich well of secrets and contradictions which are pleasingly not all tied off neatly by the end of the novel. The vision of Nella sneaking into Marin’s bedroom and discovering in it a riot of African and voodoo items, scrawled upon, hung up drying and curling, strongly spiced and darkly lit, is a gothic incident of great power. The other characters are, unfortunately, not quite as interesting – Johannes is distant, though that’s credible from the narrator’s perspective, and the narrator herself, though strong-minded, is somewhat of an everywoman without much bite. The supernatural angle of the miniaturist herself recedes like a mirage – she lends suspense and thrill to the tale but is ultimately toothless.
The book is somewhat hobbled by the weight of twentyfirst century liberalism – the protagonists end up being, sort of, respective champions of race and gender equality and sexual liberty. One reviewer has referred to the sense of an almost tick-list of tolerance that the book none-too-lightly argues for. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to have a “hero” character who didn’t have this modern mindset rather than pushing those on to the baddies? This morality didn’t sit well with me and hampered the novel as a whole, but there’s no disputing Burton’s talents. Dutch or no, I’ll be watching to see what she does next.