For a long time, I was skeptical about reading Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist for several reasons. I don't really like the historical period the author uses as a setting. It has a religious element. And to be honest, something about that cover just creeped me out--something uncanny valley-like, maybe? I don't know. But the library had it in their popular reading section, so I snagged it, and boy am I glad I did!
First, let's address the concerns I had going into the book. The time period didn't actually prove to be an issue. Other than an occasional mention of someone's collar (dear lord, fashions in the seventeenth century were ridiculous) this book could have been set in many historical time periods. And as for the religious aspect, it's used more as setting and plot flavor than an actual preachy element, which was good. It was even necessary for the plot of this book. And this book, I should say, is everything that I hoped Hannah Kent's Burial Rites would be, but wasn't.
The Miniaturist is about Nella Brandt, who is recently married and moves to Amsterdam to be with her husband, a prominent merchant, and his sister. But married life isn't anything that Nella thought it would be. Her husband Johannes, while nice, doesn't seem to be interested in her, and gives her a toy house built to replicate their own to occupy her while he's off doing other things. Marin, Johannes' sister and Nella's new sister-in-law, runs the house with an iron grip and refuses to let Nella step in as the new mistress. Every night, Nella hears whispers and doors closing, but doesn't know where they're from. In desperation for something to do, she writes to a miniaturist to procure items for the mini house Johannes gave her, planning to furnish it with dreams of her life and future. But when the first package comes, it has items that Nella didn't order in it, ones with strange and foreboding implications. Nella requests that the packages stop, but they don't, and to make matters even creepier, the items she's already received seem to be changing to reflect events around Nella and her new family.
This book is creepy, and it is full of people with secrets. Nella herself is pretty much an open book, but as the story progresses we learn that the other characters all have hidden dimensions which Nella can't fully see, and which have put them in the fast lane toward tragedy. As Nella attempts to piece together all the secrets in her life, she becomes an anchor for the family, but she's too late--the damage of Marin, Johannes, Cornelia, and Otto's deeds has already been done. There are definitely psychological elements at play here, too, addressing plot points that are never fully explained, leaving us guessing as to the miniaturist and her knowledge and intentions. It's very, very spooky, but it was so well done that I can't fault it for not spelling everything out in the end; this is the type of ambiguity that is tantalizing rather than frustrating, and I loved it.
The one thing I didn't love about this book was that it's written in present-tense, which bothers me. I think past could have just as easily been employed without the narrative suffering at all. However, that's just personal preference, and I know some people love present tense.
I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a slightly creepy read that focuses on people over plot, and the implications of actions that are beyond one's control, but which impact one greatly nonetheless.
4.5 stars out of 5.