Alibi V.24 No.7 • Feb 12-18, 2015 

Book Review

Peeking Through Keyholes

The Miniaturist

Jessie Burton
HarperCollins
hardcover
historical fiction
$26.99

If you like secrets, read this. If you want to meet unknowable characters, read this. If you’re intrigued by miniscule boxes of marzipan and tiny rooms with hidden truths, read this.

Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist follows young Dutch bride Petronella Oortman in her new life in 17th-century Amsterdam as the wife of Johannes Brandt, a rich and mysterious merchant. From the day she arrives at the cold steps of her new home, Nella perceives that hers is a house of whispered secrets. After her husband buys her a cabinet house in the likeness of her own domicile, she begins a journey that starts as simply creating her ideal home, populating it with pieces from a miniaturist. This delving into the world of the imaginary reveals a tiny house of clues that directs Nella’s attention to the secrets her household is keeping wrapped away behind closed doors and under sable petticoats. While trying to piece together the reality of her new life, she tries to understand her enigmatic new family, all while dealing with the disturbingly prophetic maker of miniatures.

The absolute best part of this novel is the magnetic pull of the author’s mystery-infused prose. Every action, every line of dialogue, every detail is a clue. You’ll find yourself racing to beat the heroine to the truth and flipping through past chapters, trying to put it all together to guess what the individual outcomes will be. The characters are guardedly revealed in glimpses through keyholes and forbidden love letters, while the descriptions of 1600s Amsterdam transport you back in time. This is spider-web writing at its best—it lures you in, then wraps you up until you find yourself at 3am deciding to just finish it because you’re so close.

The absolute best part of this novel is the magnetic pull of the author’s mystery-infused prose. Every action, every line of dialogue, every detail is a clue.

As a lover of truth and revelation, my only complaint is that, in the end, we are given only a nugget of information about the miniaturist’s past—that she created pieces that “measured other things—things people didn’t want to be reminded of. Mortality, a broken heart. Ignorance and folly. She said it was because she could see into their souls, their inner time, a place that paid no heed to hours and minutes.” The greatest mystery—how this title character sees into women’s lives and molds them in an almost divine way—is never revealed. It’s maddening. She’s an essentially magical creature toying with mere mortals in a historically realistic world.

Yet, perhaps this leads to the truth that everyone must someday learn: that there are some things you cannot know and people you will never understand. The novel highlights the difficulty of accepting the reality of those closest to you with dignity and courage as well as dealing with the ways in which we all lie to ourselves. In a moment of bare honesty, Nella’s husband imparts, “When you see beneath the sweeter gestures, the smiles—when you see the rage and the pitiful fear which each of us hide—then forgiveness is everything.” With her minute parakeets and foreboding cones of sugar, the miniaturist teaches that seeing what’s really there is the first step in becoming the architect of one’s own fate.