Friday, September 5, 2014

Jesse Burton Shrinks The Miniaturist

Some will say that The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton is an oddly titled book given that the character who is the miniaturist is simultaneously important and not important at the same time. She is important because of the affect she has on several characters at the same time. And yet, she is unimportant in that her physical presence, persona, and background is largely absent from the story.

But that is the point. By removing the physical presence of the miniaturist from the story, Burton relies on perspective alone — both other characters' and the readers' — to fill in the details based on nothing more than what they want to believe. For some, the miniaturist is an agent of change or a guardian angel. For others, she is malicious and manipulative. And for yet others, she is a mere annoyance on the periphery of the story, a distraction best summed up as literal trickery.

More than that, perhaps, the miniaturist provides a counterbalance to faith during a time when the church was increasingly oppressive in seventeenth century Amsterdam. And the rest is up to you.

The Miniaturist is a story about a customer, not the artist herself.  

The Miniaturist is the story about Petronella "Nella" Oortman, a very young woman who arrives in Amsterdam to begin her life as the wife of Johannes Brandt. He is an illustrious merchant trader, one of the most successful and revered in all of Amsterdam. The family is known for its reputation.

Reputation is also why this marriage was arranged. Despite the good name of the Oortman family, Nella's father had lost most of the family's fortune. Moving to an exclusive address on the Golden Bend on Amsterdam's Heren Canal is about the best she can expect in her life, given the era.

But any childish hopes of a fairytale ending for Nella quickly evaporate as an atmosphere of mystery and expectation closes in upon her. She isn't welcomed by her new husband, but rather his sharp tongued sister, Marin, who appears relentless in establishing herself as the matriarch of the household.

Even when her husband does return home, he remains kind but distant before locking himself away in his study or rushing out to his warehouse. The audacity of it leaves Nella with nothing to do in a strange but nicely appointed home and an even stranger city until she is presented with a cabinet-sized replica of their home.

To furnish it, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist, who has an uncanny ability to not only capture true-to-life miniatures of what Nella orders, but also keenly observed details into her life that she has never ordered. There are times the tiny representations seem to tease her, taunt her, provide her comfort, reveal secrets, chronicle the past, and predict the future.

While tending to her miniature home, Nella navigates through the unfamiliar daily happenings of her Amsterdam household that consist of her shrewd sister-in-law, surprisingly personal maid Cornella, and dark-skinned manservant Otto. But even as a the closed Brandt household becomes more familiar, there are some secrets that she cannot seem to uncover, including one that may lead to their destruction.

Set in the Dutch Golden Age when Amsterdam was considered one of the most important ports in the world and a leading center for finance and diamonds. The Miniaturist portrays a mostly descriptive account of life in the late 1600s (even if some of it includes some creative license) to tell a tale of mystery, hope, trust, and tragedy.

A few graphs about author Jesse Burton. 

The Miniaturist was written by Jesse Burton in a piecemeal fashion before being revised some seventeen times by the first-time author. Although inspired in part by a real Dutch woman named Petronella Oortman who really did own a miniature home in 1686, the balance of the story, however, is fiction.

Burton, a theatrical actress who studied and appeared in productions at Oxford University and the Central School of Speech and Drama, wrote the novel in secret (sometimes at work) and sold it at an 11-publisher auction at the London Book Fair. She is currently working on a second novel.

The Miniaturist By Jesse Burton Shrinks 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While some criticisms, including historical licenses and contemporary language slips, are valid, The Miniaturist is a passionate portrayal of an Amsterdam household and a vividly descriptive tragedy, with a hint of magical mystery that the author never diminishes or supports, confirms or denies. It starts predictably enough as a fish-out-of-water story before diving deeper into individual perspective and societal pressure.

You can find The Miniaturist: A Novel by Jesse Burton on Amazon or download it for iBooks from Apple. The audiobook is also available from iTunes. It is eloquently narrated by Davina Porter, who captures the wonderment of the young protagonist. Barnes & Noble also carries The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton.
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