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5 reasons to read The Miniaturist

TheMiniaturistIt 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 canalmake 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.




What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

21 thoughts on “5 reasons to read The Miniaturist

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  • OK. You’ve convinced me 🙂

  • I’ve not heard of this book! I will have to place it on my library list to borrow sometime. Love the book cover.

    • You’ve astounded me Stefanie – you’re always so up to date on bookish news. The US cover isn’t as wonderful unfortunately.

  • This is post is making me want to read this book again! Thank you for sharing that video about how the cover was done. I think a lot of people get hung up on the mystery of the miniaturist but as you say,the underlying themes are much more interesting and important. Happily, I get to re-visit Amsterdam later this year!

    • I was surprised that the company who made the model didn’t have the video on their website – I found it on the Picador site though and thought it deserved a bit more exposure

  • The most common negative feedback I’ve heard about this book is that Nella seems very much a twenty-first century woman in seventeenth-century clothing; i.e. her attitudes about feminism, social justice and so on, appear anachronistic in her setting. I’m interested to know if that stood out at all to you, or was it dwarfed by Burton’s scene-setting power?

    • if I was being hyper critical then I could find a number of improbable points in the book like this but it didn’t spoil the enjoyment Elle.

  • I must have been living under a rock because this book escaped my attention for a long time. And then, once I’d read it, of course I noticed it EVERYWHERE! Anyway, I loved it. I understand other people’s quibbles with some of the writing and plot elements but that aside, I couldn’t put it down. And it made me bawl like a baby toward the end!

    • I suspected what would happen in the end but I quite understand your reaction Kate

  • I only needed one reason. It was a rattling good story, transporting you in time and place. The other reasons are a bonus.

    • See now you’ve just told me that I need not have spent so long on writing about this book ! I could have just given that reason. Just joking…

      • Please don’t get me wrong. I loved all your reasons. I;m just not clever enough to articulate them like you do. But once that book captured me I was in Amsterdam and oblivious to any C21 reactions. They came later.

  • Sold! I hesitated on whether I should pick this one up. It sounds like it has all the components to make a great story and the UK edition looks like a feast for the eyes. Thanks for writing this post, which is brilliantly done by the way. You really do have a way with words. 🙂

    • I try my best though I still class myself in the learner category in terms of writing reviews. Wish I could write them more quickly since I have quite a backlog. The paperback version is out in the UK now Didi and while it doesn’t have the blue edged paper, the front cover has a wonderful velvety feel to it.


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