The past can be a gloriously fertile place for authors: the sparser the facts, the more space there is for fiction to grow and thrive. As Hilary Mantel puts it, ‘the imagination can suggest what’s erased,’ while WG Sebald speaks of the desire to ‘fill in the gaps and blank spaces and create out of this a meaning which is greater that that which you can prove.’ The Miniaturist, a novel with a mystery at its heart, makes enthusiastic use of the ‘blank spaces’ of seventeenth-century mercantile Amsterdam in its story of eighteen-year-old Nella Brandt. Arriving on the Herengracht to join the household of her much older husband, she begins to receive unexpected packages from an elusive ‘miniaturist’, a maker of tiny figures and furniture, which seem to hint at the secrets kept by her new family. While this colourful adventure takes its inspiration from facts – a miniature cabinet now kept in the Rijksmuseum; its original owner, the real Petronella Oortman – it comes to life in the spaces where they end. What’s Nella’s new husband Johannes really up to, and what secret is his enigmatic sister Marin keeping? How does the miniaturist know? And can Nella uncover the identity of this observant stranger?
Burton appreciates the power of details, and The Miniaturist, with its eye for the small and the secret, is satisfyingly alive with them. Seventeenth-century Amsterdam is evoked through the fur lining of a sober black bodice; a house whose most opulently-furnished rooms face the street; a curl of Surinam sugar melting on the tongue; coriander seeds repurposed for a dolls-house boardgame. The material world of this novel is lovingly and densely reconstructed, stuffed as full of curiosities and rarities as the merchant Johannes Brandt’s storehouse. Further texture is added by the deft and thoughtful use of period words – the terrifying Rasphuis; the delightful puffert – and in careful curation of overheard conversations and overlooked scenes. However, research is not always worn so lightly. The reader is told, rather than shown, that ‘the velvet [curtain] is needed to keep out canal mists’, or that ‘ladies can walk alone on the street’, and after a while those lovely details start to feel heavy, made to carry more narrative weight than they can bear. Burton places just too much emphasis on them, and sometimes parses them for the reader to make absolutely sure that no nuance has gone by unnoticed. Either she does not trust these details to do their own work, or she does not trust her readers to correctly infer their significance.
Although the Amsterdam of The Miniaturist has a familiar supporting cast – militia men, preachers, wealthy merchants and their bitter wives – the novel’s focus is on the domestic, the private, the unspoken: those lives not recorded in traditional history. Burton’s Amsterdam is a world whose real action takes place behind locked doors, populated with talented spinsters, homosexuals, orphans and black Dutchmen who are invisible to history only because for many years nobody thought to look for them. Burton turns these people into interesting and lovable characters, although sometimes lacking in depth, and when the narrative calls for it she is not afraid to treat them with a ruthless lack of sentiment, which makes for genuinely moving and horrifying moments. However, her treatment of Nella falters at points. Initiating a newcomer into the world of the novel apace with the reader is a useful device but it can be hard to get right, and as she pursues information for the reader’s benefit, the ‘clever’ Nella sometimes comes across as peculiarly dim. Granted, she is new to the city and to adulthood, but since she is not new to seventeenth-century Holland her constant state of surprise and confusion doesn’t always ring true, especially given the background of financial ruin we are told pushed her into this expedient marriage. Burton, struggling to balance realism with vital information-sharing, forces the other characters into exposition: when Johannes explains that ‘[g]uilds offer protection in hard times, apprenticeships and a means to sell, but they also determine their workload and control the market’, briefly trading his own voice for that of an encyclopaedia, this carefully-constructed world begins to wobble.
Although Nella is a lively and sympathetic character to her twenty-first century readership, it is at the cost of her authenticity. With one foot outside the narrative moment, her attitudes, particularly her expectations of marriage (romance, companionship) and her treatment of social outliers (reasonably untroubled acceptance), feel anachronistic. The premise of the first hundred or so pages – a teenager struggling to seize authority within a household that does not need or want her, while negotiating a potentially sexual relationship with a strange man twice her age – would make for a subtle and fascinating piece, but the opportunity is passed over. While the novel does delve into what options women have in a world so definitively run by men, these women are merely observed by Nella. She is never quite one of them. In heavy-handed observations such as ‘Marin viewed marriage as a ceding of something, whereas many women… see it as the only possible form of influence a woman may have’, she becomes a mouthpiece to remind the reader what they should have learnt, rather than a real young woman absorbed in her own experience.
Since in all other respects The Miniaturist showcases meticulous and extensive research, it’s disappointing that Nella’s interior life falls short. This is not to say that only perfect authenticity is acceptable – this is fiction, after all – but when so much work has been done, and the author is capable of taking it further, it’s frustrating to see the possibility of real complexity ignored. Perhaps the fear was that if Nella’s mind were more shuttered, more seventeenth-century, she would be less interesting to readers: in fact, the opposite could have been true. This hesitation or inability to fully immerse the reader is a serious weak spot, and means that in the end Burton has created a world in just the same manner as her shady miniaturist – as an outsider looking in. It is a clever confection rather than a whole large enough to swallow up the reader.
The central mystery of the miniaturist’s identity, although sometimes handled with rather too much schlock, keeps things ticking along right up until the last second, attended by the unravelling secret lives of Johannes and Marin Brandt. In the end, however, all is revealed disappointingly quickly, and the surprise is not always equal to the tension preceding it. It’s like struggling with a Gordian knot only to have somebody turn up with a pair of scissors. These shortcomings are not unforgivable – The Miniaturist is still a diverting and attractive read – but the novel never engages with the complexities of its subject in an entirely satisfying way. It would be interesting to see what Burton might produce if she relaxed her grip on the facts and allowed her characters – and readers – to fill in the blank spaces.