“A cannonball would do less damage to my marriage than those cursed miniatures.”
I picked up The Miniaturist simply because it’s set in Amsterdam, my favourite city, and Burton did a splendid job of capturing the beauty of the city (“The canal path is empty, the ice a ribbon of white silk between the Herengracht houses”) and the corruption in its 17th century society (“This is Amsterdam, where the pendulum swings from God to a guilder.”)
The story is very readable and well-written, and you feel Burton has done her history homework — 1600s Amsterdam seems considered and researched, from its religion and politics to its social cues and most of its characters. There’s even a neat little section at the back of the book, after the story ends, detailing 17th century Dutch salaries, the cost of living, and phrases (‘herenbrood’, anyone?).
Don’t expect to smile much — The Miniaturist is tragic, with little light relief (except for the amazing insults, see below). Criss-crossing chemistry and eroding emotions are described with gloomy vividness (“She swallows, knowing a sob is there, worrying that to cry might be an invasion of his grief.”)
Sadly, Burton’s almost poetic language doesn’t save some of the characters and relationships from being unbelievable. Reminders that Nella is 18 years old are harsh given how mature, resilient, and stable she remains even in the most trialling of situations, and the lengths she goes to to help Johannes in the latter half of the book don’t have firm footing, given how little their romance is explored.
The second big ‘nope’ of The Miniaturist for me is the disappointing titular character, who is a, if not the, main source of mystery and intrigue throughout the book. There’s no climax for the character. All of the exciting secrecy shrouding the character and the central plot prop they create fizzles out and is explained away dismissively.
If you like historic tragedies which slowly unravel tangled webs of love, deceit, corruption, and heartbreak without being too wordy, and don’t mind a couple of characters being a touch archetypal or a handful of twists feeling a tad predictable or familiar, give The Miniaturist a go. Look elsewhere if you, like me, lust for stories which leave lasting impressions.
Oh, and as for those amazing insults:
“A spray of red pimples covers the second man’s forehead. He’s little more than a boy. God has been malicious with his paintbrush.”
“You are a stone thrown upon a lake. But the ripples you create will never make you still.”
“Those with no horizons want to pull yours down. They have nothing, only bricks and beams, not one jot of God’s great joy. I pity them truly. They will never hold the republic in the glory I have seen.”
And if you’re feeling self-deprecating, one of the standout lines of the book:
“I’m a giant loaf.”
Other lines I loved:
The sea is something the land can never be. No patch stays the same.
The rest of Amsterdam seems to want to move forward, building ever upwards despite the boggy land that might well sink them all.
She is so still that Nella believes she could be one of the stained-glass saints, fallen from the church’s pane.
She tidies her napkin into a perfect white square, a loose tile on the black expanse of her lap.