It was hard to miss Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist last year. Readers were so entranced by her tale of strange secrets behind the door of a sixteenth century Amsterdam house, they bought more than 100,000 copies (making it one of the fastest selling books in hard back format). It was named as book of the year in the National Book Awards, by The Observer and also the Waterstones’ book chain. Burton herself was named as National Book Awards New Writer of the Year 2014.
If you’ve yet to buy or borrow this book or you have it lingering on the bookshelf, let me see if I can persuade you to delay no longer.
1. It’s a feast for the eyes. Just the act of picking up this book and opening it will remind you that reading is as much a tactile and sensory experience as it is a cerebral one. In hardback format the novel is an object of beauty. The UK cover (shown above) has a glorious representation of an ornate doll’s house of the kind given as a wedding gift to the novel’s principal character, eighteen year old Nella Oortman. The model of the house and all its contents including Nella’s parakeet in a cage, were constructed by hand by Andersen M Studio, a specialist company in London (you can watch a short video of the project ). The level of detail is astonishing. Adding to the whole experience, cover designer Katie Tooke edged all the pages in the same tone of blue used for the costumed figures. Just look at the picture of Burton at a-book signing to see how gorgeous this looks).
2. It will convince you to visit Amsterdam. Or, if you’ve been previously, to make a return trip. Burton brings the city so vividly to life that you’ll feel you absolutely have to take a boat along the Herengracht Canal where Nella lives. In the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century this was the premiere address in the city, the place where the richest merchants and most influential inhabitants built their mansions with inner gardens and coach houses. Today it’s a World Heritage location though on the day Nella arrives at her new home, it wasn’t looking its best. Nevertheless it still makes an impression on the young girl from the countryside.
Today the wide stretch is brown and workaday. Looming above the sludge-coloured canal, the houses are a phenomenon. Admiring their own symmetry on the water, they are stately and beautiful, jewels set within the city’s pride. Abpvetheir rooftops, Natue is doing her best to keep up and clouds in colours of saffron and apricot echo the spoils of the glorious republic.
3. You’ll yearn for a olie-koeck. These are sweetened dough balls fried in hog’s fat which might not sound too good until you realise that they are in effect a kind of doughnut.
“…the fried crust breaks apart under Nella’s teeth, releasing the perfect blnd of almond, ginger, clove and apple.”
There are many scenes involving cooking in this novel, acting as a device for Nella to probe her housemaid and cook for info about her mysterious new husband. Amsterdam being a Calvinist city at the time means the residents tend to be ultra conservative in public, dressed in plain wool garments and eating a lot of cabbage and onions. But in the privacy of their homes they give into their sweet tooth with sugar coated doughnuts and marzipan.
4. Best to read it before you see it. If ever a book was made for the screen, this is it. This week the publishers Picador announced that a London based company has taken out an option to create a tv series based on Burton’s novels. They’ll have plenty of material to work with, from some set pieces like a court trial, a feast and a drowning to several scenes in which Nella, intent on discovering the identity of a mysterious miniature maker, gets out into the streets of Amsterdam to discover the source of its wealth.
She climbed … past bolts of Coromandel and Bengal silk, cloves, mace and nutmeg in crates marked Molucca, pepper labelled from Malabar, peels of Ceylonese cinnamon… Past Delft plates, casks of wine…, boxes of vermilion and cochineal, mercury for mirrors and the syphilis, Persian trinkets cast in gold and silver… Here is real life, she thinks, out of breath and giddy. Here is where true adventures come to land.
5. It’s simply a good story. A number of reviewers have commented that they found the book implausible in part and the writing style rather saggy on occasion. Admittedly Burton could work a bit harder on her similes but she still delivered some finely crafted passages and a story that is so well constructed it keeps you wanting to read on, and on and on. At times it reminded me of Tracy Chevalier’s work. To call this a page turner would be unfair because I always associate that descriptor with fast paced crime fiction and while Burton’s novel does contain a mystery, the underlying themes of contradictory attitudes to women, sexuality and to the outsider are far more interesting than whether Nella finds the answers she seeks.