Today, I finished reading the haunting, magical and suspenseful novel, ‘The Miniaturist’, by Jessie Burton (her debut novel). The review below contains my thoughts of the book from a writing perspective. Please be warned, this may contain spoilers! This review was originally posted on Goodreads.com.
In the first chapter we are introduced to Petronella, the book’s main protagonist, who is entering a new house, a new world, to be with her new husband; Johannes. I find this to be an interesting beginning in novel writing; usually, plots in novels will begin with a character living out there daily lives, when suddenly, they are thrown off path for whatever reason. Here the author has placed the trigger in the past, and has planted Nella in the result of the trigger. In the beginning we want and need to know where Nella is, why she is there, and what she will be facing – this creates that essential initial suspense in writing.
On the title header of the chapter, the author states the place and date (seventeenth century) of where the book begins. This helps the reader visualise the period. This method is also good when we don’t want to place the time, date and era in the actual story for whatever reason – it allows the author to focus on description and story of that time period – which also hints at the ‘show’ don’t ‘tell’ rule in the narrative.
We meet some of the other character’s of the Brandt household in the hallway. This is a perfect setting and stage for their interaction. The setting helps to build the claustrophobic and haunting overtones and themes of the story to come – in fact the setting is a character in itself!
The characters are given clear physical descriptions and unique traits from the outset – which are all essential elements in ensuring the reader gets an instant ‘early’ image in their mind of the characters; which will stay with them throughout the book. It is also through physical description, action and dialogue that we begin to understand the relationships and chemistry between the characters – the differences in the character’s personalities helps to build the conflict in the story.
The author had undertaken considersble research of Amsterdam and it’s history in order to write the book. After I finished reading it, I felt I had come away with a good understanding of Amsterdam’s history – and it is always great to learn something new through fiction! I learned about seventeenth century Dutch houses, Churches, laws, trials, religions, food, currency and professions. I loved how the author had initally visited The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; where she had viewed real-life Petronella Oortman’s miniature house. She had walked away inspired, wondering who would have owned such a beautiful thing. I guess this really does tell us that some of the best inspirations come to us when we question something, and want to know more about it. It’s the ever magical why, what, where and when of fiction – and that wonderful trigger of when research begins.
I can only guess that the author wanted to keep the miniaturist character as mysterious as possible, because this mirrored the author’s mysterious feeling’s towards the miniature cabinet. I felt that the miniaturist character did have her own story to tell far away from this book – I would still love to know what she looked like, how she acquired these foretelling skills, and (in more detail than this book explained) why she chose to impact other’s lives by using these skills. A new book from this character’s viewpoint would also be amazing.
There are some strong themes in the book; love, obsession, jealousy, secrets, lies, superstitions, violence, fear, regret, death, decay, among many other’s – and they all entwine into a fantastic carefully woven plot – which has several twists!
I thought the ending was carefully wrapped up with all of the loose ends tied. Although the very last event was inevitable, I still wondered whether something magical was going to happen to save the day – and that process is ‘suspense working the reader’ at it’s best. The fact that no magic happened in the end made the story very raw and real.
Finally, one thing that really blew me away was when I visited the author’s Pinterest page (a collection of research images that she used as inspiration for the novel). I had clear visions in my mind of the character images, based on the author’s descriptions; but it was only when I visited the author’s Pinterest page that my visions were confirmed to be almost identical! This itself was a magical experience, and can only highlight the author’s excellent eye for detail. I also recommend creating storyboards for your writing’s – they become great inspiration and prompts when needed.
I recommend this book to those who enjoy a haunting, suspense-thriller. This book is a truly amazing read by a brilliant debut writer. I will look forward to Jessie’s next book called ‘Belonging’ – set in Spain and London in the 1960’s.
Until next time,