The Miniaturist—Jessie Burton
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. (1)
Marin has swallowed time, and on the map of her pale skin, Nella cannot find the clue of when she sank and how she disappeared. (351)I've been hearing a lot about this book since it came out, I have seen it repeatedly on the recently arrived section at my local library, and the cover is entrancing. So I finally picked it up and zoomed through it. It was so intriguing and perfectly mysterious and juicy, showing us a little slice of life of—we discover—a rather unorthodox Dutch family.
In Amsterdam in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman has arrived in her new role as wife or a Dutch businessman. She's barely met him and has never met his surly sister or servants/household members. She's had even less experience with men. But she knows that her new husband, Johannes Brandt, should be coming to her room to take care of his husbandly duties—and so she can take care of her wifely duties. But he doesn't, instead gifting her with a miniature version of her new house to fill and use as practice for managing the larger version. While pondering this, Nella also has to navigate her relationship with Marin, Johannes' sister, who is used to managing the household, and keeping secrets. Otto and Cornelia, the two servants of the house, complete the strange little family; Nella is especially surprised that Otto is African, as she's never seen an African man before. But perhaps the biggest mystery is the miniaturist, to whom Nella sends away requests and receives more than she asked or bargained for.
Oh boy, this book had so much more going on than I could have anticipated. There were a couple of reveals that I guessed hundreds of pages earlier—like Marin's pregnancy, which isn't hard to guess at if you have any experience with recognizing symptoms of pregnancy.
But despite some later predictabilities, I was caught right from the beginning with that beautiful piece of metaphorical imagery—"words are water." Although it does lose its impact a bit when used multiple times—Burton uses the same phrase again on page 149—it is the perfect metaphor for the occasion and for the setting in Amsterdam, a city surrounded and built upon water.
And despite those predictabilities, there were a number of reveals I did not see coming. Perhaps the most poignant fact of this book is how similar the issues are that Nella is dealing with to the issues that we still deal with and debate today. When Nella first finds out that *spoiler* Johannes is actually gay and she is his unknowing beard, she immediately recoils and remembers all of the vitriol she has heard against men in relationships with men. (It probably doesn't help that Nella isn't just told that Johannes is gay, but discovers him in his office receiving oral sex from a younger man...) But after approaching Marin with anger and rage at being pushed into an arranged marriage that will never allow her to live "as a proper woman," this exchange occurs:
In the heavy silence, Marin collapses slowly like a puppet, arms and neck slack, chin to chest. "Do you know what they do to men like my brother?" she says. "They drown them. The holy magistrates put weights on their necks and push them in the water." A wave of devastation seems to draw down Marin's body. "But even if they dragged Johannes back up and cut him open," she says, "they still wouldn't find what they wanted.""Why not?"Tears start to strand on Marin's pale cheeks. She presses her hand to her chest as if to ebb her grief. "Because it's something in his soul, Petronella. It's something in his soul and you cannot get it out." (150)And later, Nella thinks to herself that although she was taught that sodomy was a crime against nature, "how right is it to kill a man for something that is in his soul? If Marin is right, and it cannot be removed, then what is the point of all that pain?" (156)
Unfortunately, this debate over the nature and "rightness" of homosexual relationships still continues. The uncomfortable feeling that is Nella's impulse when she discovers Johannes' secret is still present in a large number of our population. However, we don't quite have to worry these days about institutionalized death penalties as a result if it is discovered that someone is gay, which is what Nella has to deal with. Just as she comes to respect and admire and even love her new husband, she must deal with losing him when he is accused of sodomy and sentenced to death by drowning.
Further, we find out that Marin and Otto were in a relationship, and Marin is pregnant as a result. Interracial relationships are much more acceptable now in the United States than they were forty or fifty years ago, but there are still places where interracial couples get stares/glares in public. The struggle for Marin in thinking about the quality of life for her child as a mixed race baby is also something that is especially relevant to today's life. As much as we hope and wish that we lived in a "post-racial society," it's becoming ever-more evident that is not the case. Marin wonders how she can consider bringing a child into a world that is only going to despise and misunderstand it, which is a sentiment I hear often from mothers of mixed or minority children.
Although the miniaturist is a mystery that is never quite solved, it is perhaps the least interesting happening in the story—which is saying something, because it was pretty darn interesting. Nella sends away for a few things to start occupying the doll house that Johannes has given her, and receives more than she requested—including some eerily familiar pieces, like exact replicas of the chairs that sit in the dining room, or perfect miniature versions of Johannes' two dogs. Has the miniaturist been here before? Is he watching them? I actually thought that it might have been that the miniaturist had a relationship with somebody in the house, and thus had intimate knowledge of its details, but turns out several people in Amsterdam had been ordering with the miniaturist and getting extra special pieces. So that couldn't be it. Then we find out that *gasp* the miniaturist is actually a woman. A woman? Working on her own as a tradesperson? Shocking! But how does she know about these little things that go in people's houses? Well, we never really find out. That remains a mystery.
Even despite the fact that one of my least favourite things, an event that is almost always sure to make me hate a book, happens here which is violence towards animals. There's a point at which Johannes' lover comes to the house to threaten Nella and Marin, and as they're finally getting him to leave, he stabs Johannes' favourite dog in the skull. What?! What is wrong with you, man?!
That's three or four big revelations right there, but there are still secrets to discover in this book.
Pepper a surprisingly relevant 300-year-old story with remarkable words and imagery, and you'll get five stars from me every time.