Mysterious Models

Book Review of “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton

13ed2-miniaturist-1The blurb for this book reads as follows: “On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding give: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. it is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true. As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household she realizes the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands – but does she plan to save or destroy them?”

This alone would pique anyone’s interest, but to follow that with the opening lines of this book was what grabbed me and had me in thrall from start to finish. The book begins “The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.” Okay, so you tell me if that doesn’t just blow you away? This simply sets an amazing tone with its poetry, that you might wonder if Burton can keep it up. Yet she does, and without it ever sounding overtly flowery or heavy. In fact, although these awe-inspiring turns of phrase pop up regularly throughout the text, for the most part, the language and style here is ultimately accessible and straight forward. Furthermore, Burton chooses her words carefully so that together with the plot, she builds an atmosphere that feels like this could easily be a memoir written in the late 17th century.

Now, rather than continue to be totally effusive and gushing about this novel, I’ll point out a few things that other reviewers might not touch on. For example, one thing that surprised me about this book is that there is a real-life cabinet house that sits in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which was once owned by one Petronella Oortman (and there’s a picture of it included in the book). Apparently, this was the inspiration for Burton’s debut novel, which I think is fascinating. When people ask where writers get their inspiration, certainly this is proof that they can get it from practically anywhere, anyone and anything. Obviously, seeing this cabinet house spurred Burton so much that she ended up doing what feels like extensive research about the era and place, some of the findings of which she includes after the end of the book, with other information, among which also includes a small glossary and some guidelines for what things cost at the time. I found this a lovely touch, and it certainly put some things into perspective.

Another thing was the slightest hints of magical realism that Burton includes here. All of this surrounds the titular character, and that artisan’s peculiar talents. Not only can this miniaturist make breathtakingly accurate replicas of people, animals and inanimate objects, but these reproductions have an uncanny way of revealing things that no one outside of the Brandt house could possibly know, as well as indicate things that have not yet happened. Burton uses this magical realism to further the various twists and turns in the story, including Nella’s various attempts to contact the person responsible for these strange objects.

Essentially, what we have here is a simply lusciously written, inspired work of genius with a complex plot that Burton carefully unfolds while avoiding confusing the readers, and a cast of characters that are both human and endearing. What more can I say but kudos to Burton for this amazing work of historical fiction that deserves a full five out of five stars!

(PS: Had I read this book in 2014, it would certainly have been a front runner in that year’s list of my top five books of the year! Also, I see from IMDb that they’re making a mini-series of this book, but that shouldn’t stop you from reading it; no screen version could ever portray Burton’s truly stunningly beautiful prose.)


Picador released “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton in 2014. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo eBooks, Kobo audiobooks,, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase supports literacy and libraries) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

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