By Jessie Burton
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
There is considerable buzz about this debut novel which was hotly sought after by several British publishers and subsequently sold to thirty different countries. Yet, what is not readily apparent is that the book has significant gay content, although to spell out exactly how it unfolds would spoil the reading of the book and some of its twists. Suffice to say the gay aspect becomes very significant in the plot as the book progresses. It also reveals a little known part of Dutch history – those found guilty of sodomy by the Calvinist burgomasters in the 17th century were sentenced to death, attached to a millstone and drowned in the harbour.
Set in Amsterdam, 1687, 18-year-old country girl Nella finds herself married off to Johannes, a handsome but considerably older man whom she scarcely knows. When she arrives at his home, she finds everything vastly different to what she imagined and her romantic expectations are quickly dashed. Her new husband is hardly ever at home and when he is, he has little time for her. Instead, his frosty and severe sister Marin rules over a rather unconventional household. There is a black manservant, rescued by Johannes from a Portuguese slaver, and who is extremely exotic in this Calvinist city. But someone also creeps around the house, spying…
To make up for his neglect, Johannes gives Nella a lavish present – a miniature version of their home, complete with tiny versions of the inhabitants. Yet the miniaturist who created the house seems to have an unnerving and very intimate knowledge of the household. New unordered items are delivered that reveal a pre-knowledge, almost as if their creator knows their fates. But confronting this elusive miniaturist proves to be impossible…
This is a very atmospheric and intriguing historical novel which explores some interesting aspects of Dutch society at this time – in particular attitudes to homosexuals, blacks, and women. But the miniature house itself is a fascinating central motif and is based on a real cabinet house which is displayed in the Rijksmuseum. The plot also has some clever twists and turns which makes for an engrossing read and the research behind it all is impressive. The book is rather reminiscent of a Sarah Waters novel, though with a gay male aspect rather than a lesbian angle.