There is much to enjoy in the successive revelations of the plot, as well as a good sense of a city so familiar now as a friendly, laid-back European destination but then at the heart of a vast trading empire. The richly drawn interiors are nicely claustrophobic, while the flavours and smells of the food are both seductive and sickening. Burton is good at atmospheres, too, and much of the book is imbued with a sense of indefinable threat; the reader is never allowed to relax for too long before the ground once again shifts under their feet. Apart from Nella, who is rather underdrawn, the characters are boldly delineated. Brandt’s austere sister Marin – with her secret furs and bedroom full of maps – is a particularly fascinating creation. And there are interesting hints at an engagement with questions of female power and identity that one hopes Burton will take on more fully in her next book.
The Miniaturist has a singular and vivid setting, and by rights it should beguile utterly. Jessie Burton – this is her first novel, and it comes with a great deal of hype, having been sold in 30 countries – has clearly done a lot of research; she has even given us a glossary. But for all its conceits and ingenuity, for all the lovely passages to be found among its pages, somehow it fails to convince. Again and again, I found myself thinking: that would not happen. We are expected to take so much on trust. Why, for instance, is Nella able to move around Amsterdam unchaperoned? Even feminism doesn't make a woman invisible. Why, towards the end of the novel, does she think longingly of all the thrilling conversations she and Johannes have enjoyed?... The result is curious: a narrative that throbs alluringly with what its minor characters (if not its major ones) consider to be sin, but whose temperature rests stubbornly at lukewarm.
A miniaturist of sorts herself, Burton is drawn to the details. Every sentence is a gorgeous, finely turned thing, and domestic snapshots come straight from Vermeer or Dutch still lifes. Occasionally the writing sags under the weight of its own conceits, but the descriptions are so lovely that it’s easily forgiven.