On the step of her new husband’s house, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker, embarrassed by the thud. No one comes, though she is expected. The time was prearranged and letters written, her mother’s paper so thin compared with Brandt’s expensive vellum. No, she things, this is not the best of greetings, given the blink of a marriage ceremony the month before – no garlands, no betrothal cup, no wedding bed. Nella placed her small trunk and birdcage on the step. She knows she’ll have to embellish this later for home when she’s found a way upstairs, a room, a desk.
Nella turns to the canal as bargemen’s laughter rises up the opposite brickwork. A puny lad has skittles into a woman and her basket of fish, and a half-dead herring slithers down the wide front of the seller’s skirt. The harsh cry of her country voice runs under Nella’s skin ‘Idiot! Idiot!’ the woman yells. The boy is blind, and he grabs in the first for the escaped herring as if it’s a silver charm, his fingers quick, not afraid to feel around. He scoops it, cackling, running up the path with his catch, his free arm out and ready. (Page 7)
Can we just discuss how beautiful this cover is
I had seen rave reviews of this book before, being The Sunday Times number one best seller and all that jazz, so I thought it was about time I picked it up and had a read. I am not the world’s biggest lover of historical fictions and this made me a little sceptical as to whether I could appreciate what was being written about, or whether I would find myself enjoying this book at all. However in terms of appreciating a novel set in 17th century Amsterdam the amount of information given by Burton is outstanding, from a glossary of common words, salary comparisons and sample expenditure list of a wealthy Amsterdammer in the back, to frequent bible citations throughout, and a photograph of a cabinet like Nella’s in the front of the novel. Once I’d discovered these I felt more than caught up enough to be able to start reading.
From first glance this book may seem simply about a young girl, Nella, becoming the wife of a wealthy merchant sailer. However things all change when she is presented with a cabinet replica of the home she is now living in. Her husband, Johannes, calls it a ‘distraction’ but in fact it acts as a really beautiful metaphor throughout for the idea that things can change and there are always secrets behind drawn curtains. Slowly throughout the novel Nella receives small parcels from a miniaturist to fill her cabinet. These are anything from small blocks of marzipan to unasked for gifts such as a cradle and replicas of each person in her home.
The arrival of all of these unasked for gifts gives Burton’s novel a really eerie feel. I felt as I was reading it that I had no real control over the events that were taking place. I had to completely surrender, much like Nella, to the whims of this miniaturist sending these gifts, which when pieced together lead to discovering the secrets that the Brandt family holds. But whilst being eerie it’s also beautifully written. The dialogue reflects the characters beautifully; Marin’s cold and pious exterior, Meerman’s sense of exaggeration, Nella’s growing knowledge etc.
For the first part of the novel I wanted things to speed up a little quicker. It is very much about learning who people are and what they’re doing, finding out as much as you can about the current state of affairs before the pace really begins to pick up at the end of the first ‘act’ (I’ve chosen to call them acts as there are individual chapters but they are split over 5 or so larger chapters or acts in which more and more is revealed and Nella becomes more and more independent). From the second act it all speeds up incredibly quickly. I spent a lot of time thinking that I finally understood a character or a situation before everything changes again. In fact, had I been looking thoroughly all the way through I may have been able to see some of these situations arising, and maybe that is cause for a second read.
Overall the characters are beautifully written, with a mixture of people you love and people you come to find revolting in the way that they betray friends and act as if they are a king among paupers. Despite not loving the genre I found myself really enjoying this read, despite the tear jerking ending which I should have expected.
Total pages – 416
Total read time – untimed
Rating /10 – 7.5
Recommend – Yes