Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Wednesday, June 18, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Miniaturist

Ecco: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Ecco: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Ecco: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Ecco: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton

Dark shadows, whispered secrets and glimpses of life through ancient keyholes are just some of the elements that infuse The Miniaturist, an evocative, atmospheric debut novel by Jessie Burton. The action takes place during the Dutch Golden Age, in 17th-century Amsterdam, along the Herengracht, one of the most important and prestigious canals in the city, the neighborhood of the richest and most influential.

The story launches in October 1686 when 18-year-old Petronella "Nella" Oortman arrives in Amsterdam. With her father deceased and the family in debt, Nella is married off to a man who her mother believes "can keep a guilder in his purse." The couple is actually married in September, but it is not until October that Nella leaves her mother and siblings at their countryside home in Assendelft and travels to Amsterdam. With Peebo, her caged pet parakeet, in tow, Nella, an imaginative girl, is ready to embark on her new life as the wife of the rich and charming Johannes Brandt--a 39-year-old, high-ranking merchant powerbroker for the Dutch East India Company that plies wares throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and Indonesia.

Upon Nella's arrival, she is surprised to learn that her husband is traveling. In his absence, she is greeted by Johannes's sister, Marin Brandt, a severe, tightly wound, sharp-tongued woman dressed heavily in black who grudgingly welcomes Nella into the household, which also consists of a maid and cook named Cornelia; Otto, Johannes's manservant, with exotic "coffee-bean" colored skin, whom Nella later learns speaks French and English, can plot a map and check the quality of Haarlem wool; and two beloved whippet dogs who worship their master, Johannes.

Once settled, Nella is stymied by the excessively frugal household and her controlling sister-in-law who orders Nella's clothes and drags her to church. Cornelia, the cook-maid, comments, "Marin eats like a mouse and shops like a nun." When Nella questions her sister-in-law about this way of life, Marin replies, "The Bible tells us that a man should never flaunt his wealth."

Marin appears as devout and zealous in her religious belief as she is strict and rigid in managing the household financial accounts. Why is that? And why is she not married? The intrigue only deepens when Nella snoops in Marin's room and discovers a provocative love letter. Who could it be from?

Perplexed, Nella feels invisible and ignored in her new home where she senses an underlying permissiveness and an uncharacteristic friendliness coming from the servants, which Nella is not used to and cannot understand. When her husband is home, which is not often, Johannes is kind, but distant--even rejecting Nella's romantic overtures. He does little to appease his new wife or tame his overbearing sister, whom Nella overhears telling Johannes how to make trades and other business decisions. Why does rich and powerful Johannes make comments about his "cloudy, untouchable wealth"? Is his fortune somehow in jeopardy?

With Johannes always traveling, Nella has many questions she would like to ask her sister-in-law, such as details about her husband's business and about commodity traders like Frans and Agnes Meerman, who deal in sugar loaves. Nella finds that conversation with Marin is never easy, and Marin's responses to inquiries about her brother's work are puzzling: "He turns mud to gold. Water to guilders. He sells other men's stock at better prices. He fills his ships and puts them out to sea. He thinks he's everybody's favorite. That's all I know."

Aggression increases between the two women, and when Johannes presents his new bride with a wedding gift, an exact model replica of their home, "an enormous, looming structure measuring nearly half of Johannes's height... a huge cupboard supported by eight curved and sturdy feet," the balance of power and authority in the household suddenly begins to shift.

At first, Marin takes issue with the lavish gift, which she feels is a garish symbol of wealth and power. At the cost of three thousand guilders, Marin believes that if "invested properly, a family could live off that for years." Nella, on the other hand, sees the cabinet house as "beautiful and useless," an insulting "monument to her powerlessness" as mistress of the actual house.

Marin ultimately encourages Nella to decorate the cupboard. "If you leave the cabinet empty," Marin says, "you'll turn Johannes's gift into a crime of profligacy." Marin gives her pseudo-blessing and extends promissory notes to Nella, finally propelling Nella to leave the house and venture into the busy shopping district in search of a miniaturist who can help her decorate the cabinet, in defiance, with all the material things that Marin detests.

The miniaturist proves to be elusive and is never in the shop; Nella leaves notes at the store. In her travels, Nella also gathers information about her husband and his associations. When startling truths come to light, Nella's loyalty comes into question as she begins to fear for her life--and the lives of others.

During this time, the chronically absent miniaturist sends cryptic messages and unsolicited parcels to Nella--intricately crafted, precise furniture reproductions for the cabinet, along with eerily accurate replicas of the inhabitants of Nella's world.

The miniature creations seem to mirror real-life adversities--often foretold. Who is this mysterious craftsperson who knows so much about Nella and the complex relationships of those in the household? Can this artisan/prophet see into the future? And does the miniaturist have some sort of ominous power and control over Nella's fate?

The idea is as unnerving to Nella as the revelations and rumors that continue to emerge about the secret, flawed lives--and love affairs--of those around her. Suspense builds as the realities of Nella's world shrink in size, becoming as compressed as the confines of that cabinet house.

Burton is a skillful writer. Her narrative is riveting and lyrically written in the present tense. The historical drama plays out over a period of three months against a detailed, sweeping backdrop of Amsterdam, while Nella makes a transformative journey from naïveté to enlightenment to empowerment. The Netherlands, at this point in history, was a largely male-dominated, pious and puritanical, church-governed civilization. Therefore, it is refreshing that Burton chose to focus the story on the plight of Nella and other women in her circle. These female characters wield their influence and vie for freedom behind the scenes, in a repressive, intolerant society ruled by vanity and wealth and plagued by greed and prejudice. In the end, the power of love and obsession, sins and secrets, loyalty and forgiveness bind together a cast of sympathetic characters who all have a part to play in a collectively chilling conclusion. --Kathleen Gerard

Ecco Press, $26.99, hardcover, 9780062306814, August 26, 2014

Ecco: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton: When Imagination Takes Control

photo: Wolf Marloh

Oxford University graduate and actress Jessie Burton is English born and bred. Her debut novel, The Miniaturist (Ecco), tells the story of a wealthy, dysfunctional family living in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age. Burton claims her only connection to the Netherlands is having visited Amsterdam twice. On one of those trips, she visited the Rijksmuseum and was drawn to an eight-foot-tall cabinet house built in the late 17th century. Burton was intrigued by the "very beautiful, decorative object, full of detail, precision and imagination." When she discovered the miniature house was an exact replica of an actual house owned by a woman named Petronella Oortman--and that it cost the same as a full-blown townhouse to build and furnish--the writer in Burton began to consider the type of woman who would commission such a house and what sort of society would condone such an expenditure.

It took Burton four years and 17 drafts to perfect the novel. During that time, she got to know the characters better, layered and sculpted the story and enriched it. The finished project ultimately went to auction in Britain and around the world. The book will be published 30 languages. Burton admits, "I would have been happy with one!"

When you first saw the cabinet house in Amsterdam, did you perceive the potential to write a historical novel immediately?

Not immediately, no. I bought the guidebook in the museum shop and kept reading and thinking about the cabinet house. A month or two later, I abandoned another writing project I had been working on and pictured this young woman, turning up in the city of Amsterdam to start a new life. It began as a short story--I had never written a full novel. But quickly it became clear I had a novel on my hands.

Tell us about the research necessary to create such an authentic 17th-century world.

I researched as I wrote. I needed the fictional story to pose factual questions rather than just me absorbing historical facts and regurgitating them as prose. I could neither afford the time nor money to travel extensively to Amsterdam, so I read a lot about the social and art history of the region, looked at paintings, and used Google maps and moved through the city, parts of which have barely changed since the 17th century!

I had the fictional skeleton of the novel in my head, but certain facts, like what pie they might have eaten and in what season, or the debts accrued with a tailor, or draconian citizenship policies, or the type of dog an Amsterdammer might have favored, would trigger my imagination and root the story in a factual, yet still impressionistic, setting. The facts that I learned allowed me to play. The priority was the story. Sometimes I conflated real-life events, sometimes I adhered to them in their chronological order. Other times, I rebelled, because it's a novel. I let imagination take control.

Did you ever have a dollhouse?

I did. When I was a child, I had a Sylvanian Families one, with little woodland animals instead of dolls. I adored it. I had a whole world--a nursery, a school, a shop, an ice-cream cart, a house... it was perfect.

The owners of the actual cabinet house--Nella Oortman and her wealthy, merchant husband, Johannes Brandt--are characters in the novel. How much of their lives is historically accurate and how much was invented? Were any other characters based on actual people?

Very little is based on actual lives. I was more interested in the object of the dollhouse as the inspirational springboard. I invented the ages of Nella and Johannes, the fact that it was Nella's first marriage and her rural upbringing. The novel is all invention except for their names, the historical setting and the fact that Nella owned the dollhouse. All the other characters are invented, too, but their presence has been inspired by many portraits and paintings I studied from that time.

Are there any characters in the novel to whom you feel a strong affinity/dislike?

I feel very deeply for Marin, Petronella's sister-in-law. She took me by surprise. Initially, she was supposed to be a sort of obstacle to Nella, and not much more, but then I realized how complicated and strong she was, how capable she was of love. I have no dislike of any of my characters. They all have their crosses to bear.

There are strong feminist overtones in the novel. Was it always your intention to build that platform into the storyline or did those aspects evolve through the writing?

I had no agenda nor pre-orchestrated intentions. My female characters are just who they are. If a male writer puts strength, color and adventure in the hands of his male characters, he is not asked if he is pursuing an agenda. Many people assume that what he's doing is the norm, because that is the overarching dominating history of Western literature--books by male writers portraying the male experience as universal, even when they're writing women characters. I am female, and it is quite normal for me to give the universal themes to my female protagonists. I didn't think twice.

Did you carefully plot out the novel before undertaking to write it?

I didn't know before I started writing what was going to happen in every chapter, but I had images in my mind--scenes, conversations, ideas I wanted to explore. I had a vague arc with a beginning and an end, and was always jotting down instructions to myself like, 'this has to happen--but where?' Gradually, through the long process, things all started slotting into place. But the process was not obvious.

Why did you choose to write the narrative in the present tense?

I chose the present tense to ratchet up the tension. The book takes place over three months, and I wanted readers to really feel they were seeing all this through Nella's eyes.

The story is visually rich and would certainly lend itself well to a TV or film adaption. Any prospects?

Thank you! On that subject, my lips are sealed!

You've been an actress in Britain for many years. Have you found any similarities between acting and writing?

I have always written--short stories, sketches, poetry. And writing has always gone hand in hand with my acting....The pursuit of a creative career is fraught with high expectations and disappointment... but I think acting and writing are actually very different. Acting works when the actors on stage are all in harmony with each other--it's communal, a mutual concerto, it's about listening and sharing. But writing is so solitary--you are ALL the actors, the director, the producer making sure you turn up for work... it's impossible for me to compare them as they use different parts of who I am.

Are you writing a second book? If so, will it be another historical novel?

Yes. My next book is set in Spain in 1937 and London, 1967. It is about identity and belonging, the chaos of war, missing bodies, an art theft, an unusual friendship and a woman who isn't who she says she is. That's all I can say for now! --Kathleen Gerard

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