Having married Johannes Brandt, Petronella Oortman enters a dark, cold house. Breakfasts of bread and herring await her. As does his sister, Marin. Marin maintains a cold hold over the house. Bound by a strong Protestant religiosity, she insists on the partitioning of their lives and church attendance. Coming from an impoverished, old wealth family, Petronella has had to be married off to stave off bankruptcy. She makes friends with the servants, Cornelia and Otto, who ground her in the new city.
Lost in a maze of secrets, she is presented with a doll’s house that mirrors her new one. In spite of the guild system, she finds a miniaturist to furnish it with items. After the first consignment of furniture, she starts receiving dolls and items that reflect her own life.
Sugar from Surinam: sweet and precious. Its sweetness masks the jealousy and insecurity of the Meermans’. Unable to sell it themselves, they have asked Johannes to bring it to market for them. Having sat in Brandt’s warehouse, the cones are beginning to spoil.
As well as the feud between the families, the Brandt’s secrets spill over. The scabs begin to break. Jack Fox, a chancer and runner, accuses Johannes of raping and stabbing him, leading to Johannes’ arrest. Meanwhile, Marin’s pregnancy is discovered and the baby delivered.
As the events unfold, Petronella continues to see the dolls arrive, magically reflecting the state of the house. All she sees is glimpses is a shock of blonde hair in the distance. Even the Meermans are affected. A story within a story, the chase becomes a novel within a novel. There are tantalising glimpses of her, how she affects the worlds around her, yet we never see her. Like an author, her dolls perhaps write the book. Burton creates an interplay between character and author that is unresolved, perhaps to its advantage.
Ratcheting up the atmosphere with its tight timing that acts as chapters interspersed with the voices and perspectives, The Miniaturist is a rough gem of a novel. It has its faults but sets up a beguiling world that emerges from the doll’s house. Moving the location of repression, showing the first views are not always correct, the book becomes its own mirror in the vein of classic Gothic novels. We must wonder who the monster is and what it is afraid of?
Jessie Burton is interviewed on Radio 4’s Open Book on July 27th.