This was a novel I was looking forward to reading. There’s something lovely about period novels (this one set in 17th century Amsterdam) because they are usually well-researched and details are accurate. In today’s internet-ready global village, an author can’t get away with ‘winging it’ any longer. There’s always some specialist in Dutch Dolls’ Houses of the 1600s who’s going to be reading and will rage online about errors if needed.
I wasn’t disappointed in Jessie Burton’s storytelling. The book was rather exquisite in its own way and delicately told this supernatural-esque drama. My largest criticism however, would be that the book is written in present tense throughout. I hate this current interest in using this tense (although I use it from time to time in short stories of my own, I’ll confess). There has to be a good reason to use it otherwise you dull the reader and when a moment of excitement comes – such as for the climax – you have no device used to convey that sense of urgency and immediacy. Nevertheless, Burton writes well and the book is still good despite that little personal bugbear of mine.
The tale of 18-year-old Nella’s doomed marriage to a wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, is shrouded in mystery from the beginning. After his strange gift of a doll’s house – the exact duplicate of their own house – the mystery deepens when Nella engages ‘the miniaturist’ to create furnishings and figurines for it. The items she receives seem to have a premonitory feel to them.
Personally, I feel the novel tries to be too many things. A criticism on 17th century European views on sexuality, a vaguely supernatural story which never really gets there properly and an historical drama about a young woman thrown into a household which leaves her bewildered and forces her to grow up fast. The book could have been just one of these things easily and been just as good – if not better for it.
The mix feels all a little watered down and the ending doesn’t really tie up together the loose ends which adds to a feeling of “oh…is that it?” That said, it is very lovely to read, the storytelling is sound and I didn’t come away feeling that it was a waste of time. Most of all, I cared about the characters, and that is always a sign of a good book for me.
So, my overall view must be that this book is moderately good, possibly even very. Brilliantly researched, moving and fascinating, but marred in failing to be anything substantial in the end. I do wonder if there’s going to be a sequel. If there was, it would make sense. I certainly think I’d want to read that and see if any of my questions are answered in the end. We’ll have to see if the author feels it merits another run at it one day.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out over summer – don’t miss them!
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org