Nella, 18 and from the country, arrives in Amsterdam in October 1686 to move in to the house of her new husband, Johannes Brandt, who is one of the most successful merchants with the East India Company. The strange household is riven by secrets. Marin, sister of Johannes, rules them puritanical prayers and austerity. Johannes is away a lot and reluctant to bed his new wife. He is under pressure to sell a huge amount of sugar belonging to the wife of an ex-friend that he has somehow betrayed. Otto, the black servant, hovers between slave and member of the family; orphaned Cornelia is Queen of spying at the keyholes. Nella is desperately unhappy.
Johannes buys her a dolls' house, a replica of their own house, and Nella commissions a mysterious miniaturist to make models to go into the house. They are delivered by Jack Philips, a stunningly handsome English actor. But then models appear that Nella hasn't ordered. And then the models start to change as tragedies begin to occur.
The book is perfectly plotted with the shocking act of violence that is the twisting point of the story exactly half way through. The first half is dedicated to piling mystery upon mystery and tension upon tension; any light shed only serves to entangle the little family even further onto the edge of peril. In the second half, the tragedies start to cascade and though some of the mysteries are resolved, others are left hanging and on the final page the fate of those who are left is very much undecided.
In some ways the characters are not as full as they might otherwise be. Because of the need to leave so many things unsaid, aspects of character are only hinted at. Dialogue is rarely straightforward and often elliptical. There are hints and shadows; was that creak a footstep of the hall outside or is it just the old house settling into the canal?
The central mystery, of course, is who is the miniaturist? This is from the school of magical realism and the miniaturist is some kind of magician. She has a fully fledged pedigree, at one point we meet her father, but we never see her except i glimpses as she rounds corners. Is she following the tragedies, using gifts of prophecy to warn Nella? Or is the dolls' house a sinister and malevolent talisman, which causes all the awful things that happen? Is the miniaturist some kind of God, a puppet master? Is she a good God or a wicked one? Or does she just watch, uncaring?
Beautifully researched, perfectly told, this is a great book which deserves to be a classic. May 2015; 424 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57