28 February 2015
This is debut novel by a young author, and… and what? Jessie Burton is ambitious, sometimes overreaching herself as she strives for the telling phrase that will fix her characters into the 17th Century Dutch context beloved of the writers of historical fiction. Petronella, always known as Nella, tries to pick her way through an Amsterdam strewn with so many carefully researched historical references that she’s bound to get lost. And absolutely nobody in the big house where she lives, or out of it, is offering any guidance to this young lady recently down from the country. She is the eighteen-year-old daughter of a recently dead country gentleman, impoverished by his own profligacy, and her mother has advised her that marriage to the wealthy merchant in his late thirties will be the best that she can do. The reader knows how plausible this is. Novels like this one have taught us that, faced with such a stark choice in almost any century before our own, few women would refuse.
I keep banging on about historical novels because it’s impossible to forget that you’re inside one as you read. I never imagine for a moment that these are real 17th Century Dutch men and women, that their religious beliefs (or whatever) are real, and… and so on. Using the continuous present tense that historical novelists often go for these days, Jessie Burton is good at evoking the sights and smells of an Amsterdam we can’t help but recognise – all those other novels and films, to say nothing of the city breaks many of her readers will have been on – and it’s perfectly charming to wander around with her. But Nella’s is a 21st Century sensibility. As things become bizarre in the big house, which they do almost from the beginning, it isn’t the responses of a provincial girl who is completely out of her depth that we follow. How would you or I react? A bit like Nella, I suspect, tentative at first but, quite soon, opening forbidden doors and going places we know we shouldn’t. She has to suffer a bit of tut-tutting, but nothing worse. Until, that is, the end of Part 1. But I’ll come back to that.
Plot. Following a prologue describing the funeral of an unnamed person – and no, I’m not going to guess who died – Chapter 1 begins three months earlier with Nella’s awkward arrival at the big house. It’s some weeks after the ultra-quiet wedding in her home town after which her new husband unceremoniously left before any consummation was possible. She assumes it will happen in his big house – much better furnished in the front, public rooms than in those at the back – probably later that same day. Naïve girl. He isn’t even there, and she’s greeted – that really isn’t the word – by an aloof, cold woman in her twenties she eventually realises is his sister Marin. There’s a young man the colour of whom she has never seen before, and she is fascinated – he turns out to be a Surinam slave freed by her husband – and a maidservant, Cornelia. She talks to her new mistress exactly as a cheeky 15-year-old schoolgirl would talk to a trainee teacher. Nella knows this isn’t right, but, well, you know what it’s like. How could she possibly stop it? She is shown to her room – not the master bedroom – and there are horrid still lifes lining the walls, every one a memento mori. Thanks, Marin.
Nothing goes as Nella expects. Johannes, the husband, comes home from his busy merchanting, and… isn’t interested in anything beyond friendly politeness. Jessie Burton has Nella imagining what her first sexual experience will be like – she has only the most rudimentary understanding of it, imparted to her by a mother who clearly hated everything about it – but he isn’t interested next day either. We wonder what’s going on. Is he in an incestuous relationship with Marin? She is clearly used to being the mistress of the house and, in the rather unsubtle way that Burton has of using houses and rooms as metaphors, Marin’s chamber reveals that there are hidden passions beneath the cold, Calvinist exterior. There’s even an anonymous love-letter that falls conveniently from a book that Nella picks up, before Marin returns unexpectedly and shoos her out.
Days pass. And you’ll never guess what Johannes buys Nella as a wedding gift. No, I mean it. It’s a beautiful cabinet that opens to reveal a perfect model of his own house, something for her to spend her time furnishing as she pleases, no expense spared. She feels as insulted by this as any red-blooded 21st Century girl would feel, but is still too dazed and confused by her new life to do anything but thank him. Marin, who seems constantly to believe that Johannes shouldn’t spend money unwisely, is coldly angry. But in that convenient way that things happen in novels, Nella is given a paper that contains an advertisement for a miniaturist. She writes and, not many days later, a package is delivered by a beautiful young man with a Bermondsey accent. And there’s another mystery. Not only are the three items she ordered exact miniatures of things in the house – there are three other items, including models of Johannes’ two dogs, that are identical down to the patch on the stomach of one of them, and of the cradle she will never have the need for at this rate. How could the maker possibly know the house’s secrets? Nella goes to the address and leaves a note – the door is locked – but she’s somehow forgotten to bring the unasked-for items with her.
I’m getting bored now. So is Burton, presumably, because she keeps adding new ingredients. There’s Nella’s attempt to arouse Johannes by kissing him and putting her hand where she expects a hard rod to be located. (Can you believe any of this?) She is as disturbed by the little curled worm she finds there as she is by his appalled reaction, and never tries again. There’s the mysterious woman who sometimes looks at her on the street so hard it’s disturbing – but, when Nella looks away only for a moment the woman disappears. It later turns out – can you believe any of this either? – that this is the miniaturist in the house with the locked door. A convenient neighbour tells Nella all about the woman who seems to live a kind of outlaw life, outside the usually strict rules that govern everyone else in Amsterdam. There’s the Calvinist preacher – we first met him in the Prologue – who likes to tell his congregation how doomed they all are. Ok….
And there’s the prosperous couple that Johannes is doing some work for, the Meermanses. Agnes is the overdressed and bling-laden wife, Frans the indulgent husband. Agnes loves to play status games, flaunting their supposed wealth in a way that even her husband seems to find embarrassing and Marin clearly despises. But, anxious to placate the Meermanses for the slowness of Johannes’ projected sale of their only asset, she invites them to dinner. Their wealth consists of a large store of sugar from Surinam, kept in the form of sugar-loaves, and they bring one to the meal for everyone to sample. Agnes thinks, perhaps rightly, that Marin is only pretending to find the luxurious sweetness distasteful. I’m not sure whether anybody reading this cares one way or the other.
Near the end of Part 1, Burton clearly thinks it’s time for the long-awaited narrative coup. Nella, in that way she has, decides she’s going to visit Johannes at his place of work. No other Amsterdam wife would ever do such a thing, but they don’t have the benefit of parachuting back from a future time when women have rights. But guess what. When she blithely opens the door to his office, expecting (God knows why) that he will be pleased to see her, instead she witnesses a scene that doesn’t become commonplace in respectable novels for another 300 years. She can’t work it out at first, but realises that the curly head bobbing up and down half-way down Johannes’ naked body is, er, doing something to the worm. When Johannes sees her, and the head is no longer obscuring it, she sees what her mother had been talking about, standing proud and (I think) purple. The bobbing head belongs to Bemondsey boy.
Nella is much more surprised by all this than the reader, and can’t cope with it at all. She faints away, but not before Burton has given us a rather good description of what an erection-induced state of shock must feel like. She finds herself being picked up, taken home (by Cornelia, who seems to have followed her, perhaps because she knows what her boss gets up to in his private office). There, she is given some kind of sleeping-draught. Sometimes sleep is best – although I’m sure she would have liked to be given the choice.
This is shorter than Part 1, but what it loses in length it makes up for in melodrama. It comes to an end with another sensational set piece, centred on violence and death this time instead of sex. Although, this being the novel it has now become, there’s a strong sexual undertow to everything that happens. I wonder if this is what penny dreadfuls were like. (Sigh.)
Since the end of Part 1…. Nothing much happens that is unexpected. Nella takes some time to recover from her first experience of live porn, pretending to be asleep when Marin comes into her room but eating the food that Cornelia leaves her. But after a week she seems to be over it. Trauma? Forget it. Aside from a not-quite-sexual frisson whenever she thinks of Bermonsey boy – I should really start calling him Jack Philips – she seems relatively unaffected for a 17th Century virgin. Maybe (although Burton never mentions it) she has learnt about couplings from her country farm experiences, although I bet the pigs and sheep didn’t fellate one another. At first she comes out with the disgusted responses to ‘sodomy’ that Burton clearly decides are obligatory, but she seems to get over her homophobia by the end of Part 2, convinced like a good 21st Century girl that he can’t get rid of what is deep within him.
Relationships are modified, if only slightly. It’s clear that the subject under consideration now is the big difference between the pious façades of people’s lives and the passions hidden behind them. We already know about Marin’s hidden interior – did I mention that she wears fur next to her skin? – and now Nella sees the fullness of her naked body beneath the tightly-fitting bodice. (She sees her by looking through the keyhole for as long as I takes for Marin to take a bath. Yeh, sure.) Marin, since Nella’s surprise in Johannes’ office, has been less cold. Cornelia has morphed into her only friend, and has told her about Marin’s big secret: She and Frans Meermanse wanted to marry, but Johannes forbade it. After her bath, Marin tears to shreds the letter Nella saw in Part 1. (Sigh, again.)
And it seems the Meermanses suspect that Johannes isn’t doing his best to sell the sugar. Agnes grabs her, literally, in the church when Nella follows Otto the ex-slave there. She is looking drawn and not wearing her usual bling, and tells Nella that Johannes seems to be stalling. He has gone to Venice, ostensibly to sell it, but she doesn’t believe it. Neither, later, does Bermondsey Jack. He doesn’t like being cast off, supposedly at Marin’s insistence, and he is in the hallway of the house when Nella gets back. He threatens them with a knife they recognise – he says Johannes gave it to him – and talks dirty for a page or two. But Marin outfaces him, holding her palm right up to the point of the knife as though daring him to use it. He kills Johannes’ beloved dog instead, offering Burton an opportunity for picturesque descriptions of blood and sorrow. Otto, back from his mysterious excursion – Nella had seen him praying vehemently in the church – struggles with Jack and ends up stabbing him in his upper chest. Bleeding but apparently not in danger, Jack leaves, triumphantly declaring how he will have ‘the savage’ arrested. End of Part 2.
The miniaturist thread: she sends perfect figures based on all the people in the house, plus Jack Philips. Marin, finding the one of Jack, accuses Nella of being appallingly indiscreet to order such a thing, and lobs it on to the iced-over canal. Nella doesn’t try to put her right, and next day the figure turns up on the doorstep. Luckily, Nella is the one who finds it. And there’s also a tiny parakeet, delivered a day or two after Nella’s has escaped. There goes the last link with her childhood, she tells somebody or other, and she keeps the miniature version in her pocket. I think she’s keeping Jack in her pocket as well.
Enough. There’s other stuff, like the cryptic messages the miniaturist sends with her models, and the burgomasters’ recent ban on any form of human image… but I’m really not that interested.
Has plot entirely taken over? You might think so. There’s a gay encounter allegedly witnessed in a public place, a midnight escape and subsequent apprehension by the authorities, another harrowing face-off in the hallway of the big house (this time with a preening militia dressed up as though for cosplay), more evidence that the models in the dolls’ house have a life of their own and… an explanation for the fullness of Marin’s figure. She’s been binding her body and breasts so tightly because… guess. This highly controlling woman has a) got herself pregnant, b) waited seven months before doing anything about it and c) been about to take a concoction, before Nella stops her, that would probably have killed her long before it kills the baby inside her. What else? Frans Meermanse, definitely the father of Marin’s child and the author of the love letter, is now heading the militia on Johannes’ tail. It was his wife Agnes who allegedly witnessed the act that will get Johannes executed if he’s found guilty. They have a motive: he hasn’t sold any of the sugar they are depending on. And… Otto has disappeared, making Cornelia wretched. It isn’t clear exactly how close they were before the disappearance.
So, nothing but plot? Not exactly. From the beginning, Burton has clearly wanted this novel to be taken seriously as literary fiction. Descriptions are almost always slowed to a standstill while she squeezes out another metaphor or poetic turn of phrase. I get the impression that these appear on every page… so let’s just find a couple of random pages and see. 234: ‘But her frustration melts into delight, for before her inside [the package] is a collection of tiny cakes and pastries. Pufferts and cross-hatched waffles, tiny gingerbread people, olie-koecken dusted with white powder….’ And this leads to the miniaturist’s own metaphor, ‘Don’t let sweet weapons stray’, and Nella’s bad-tempered response to a useless ‘arsenal of sugared treats.’ As so often, it takes Burton a whole page to get to the point. Another random page? 265: ‘Nella’s bones are falling through her body, as though she’s going to slide into her husband’s rug….’ What? What?
There are other signals that Burton wants us to treat her little melodrama seriously. There’s her solemn treatment of the well-trodden theme of religious hypocrisy, with all those characters – now including Marin, obviously – hiding behind a façade while Pellicorne the preacher and the self-regarding burgomasters point the finger. And the miniaturist, with a kind of ponderous inevitability, is taking on an ever more symbolic role. Nella wonders if she’s missed details in the models that might always have been there – the red mark on the dog’s head, the swollen stomach on the model of Marin – or whether, magically, they have somehow taken on lives of their own. Is the miniaturist somehow writing their fates? Is she – and reader, you might need to sit down if you aren’t already – the creator of Nella’s whole world, like… like… like the author of these lives?
Or is it just more nonsense, a pale imitation of that M R James story in which little figures like these reduce the onlooker to speechless horror?
Parts 4 and 5
A lot has happened in the three months since Nella’s arrival. And that’s just to the end of Part 3. In Part 4… does it matter? A birth, two deaths, a disappearance and a reappearance. There’s a letter from Nella to the miniaturist, supposedly fled to Bruges, where she was an apprentice, but any sightings of the woman from now on are fleeting and might be illusory.
There’s a problem with the doll’s house metaphor, in which the maker’s skills have given the illusion of life to the little figures. To me – and you know what I’m going to say now – Burton’s supposedly living creations have no more life than the models. So when Marin dies shortly after the birth of the little girl, it’s no more moving than when Nella tears up the little figures in what appears to be an act of exorcism. Burton invests the destruction of the figures, and of the cabinet that houses them, with a symbolic, cathartic significance it simply hasn’t earned. From the first unexpected appearance of the figures Burton seems to have made dozens of references to their uncanny relationship to the inhabitants of the real house. It has never worked for me, so neither does the exorcism.
The other death is that of Johannes. The trajectory of his story, from arrest to execution, is a straight line that Burton does nothing with. There’s a trial, at which the Schout – the presiding judge – makes it clear from the start that Johannes is a dead man walking. Meermans gives his evidence, Agnes looks dreadful… and, as a courtroom scene, it’s a damp squib. All Burton can offer is Johannes making some rather obvious points about the injustice of it all – he’s as right-on and 21st Century as Nella in his way – and some industrial-strength emoting from her. There’s more of this in her visits to his cell, during which Burton seems to imagine that she’s given this unhappy pair a back-story of affection bordering on love. She hasn’t – they’ve hardly spoken during the previous 300-odd pages – so these scenes don’t work either.
A few of the loose ends are tied up. Otto returns in time to see Johannes’ execution and be introduced to his motherless child – because, reader, as will come as no surprise at all, the little girl isn’t Meermans’, but his. A wet-nurse is found who can be bribed not to tell whose child she is suckling. Nella also bribes the pastor to find a spot in the church for Marin’s body – Burton keeps making the point so heavily about the bribery and corruption in the city that it feels like being hit on the head – and she has found an implausible buyer for a lot of the sugar, which isn’t as ruined as she first thought.
Then there are the loose ends left dangling. What is the strange power that the miniaturist has? Where does she go – or does her disappearance represent something inside Nella herself, a need to be independent of the fate that other people decide for her? As if I’m bothered. What about the child? How are they going to explain away a brown-skinned infant? (They won’t be able to, obviously, but Burton glosses over that fact.) Where will they live? Amsterdam, where hypocrisy rules, or Nella’s home town where nothing interesting ever happens? How much of the sugar will they really sell?
In other words, things that look like endings in this novel, the destruction of the miniaturist’s work being the most vivid, aren’t really. And surely, the first rule of a melodrama is that everything will be resolved. Where’s the satisfaction otherwise? What is this novel for?