Book Club – ‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist – published last July – has been incredibly well received, being named Waterstones’ book of 2014 and a Sunday Times number one bestseller. One of the aspects of this novel which makes it so good, particularly from the view of an aspiring author myself, is that it is her début novel. Jessie Burton’s success is evidence of the importance of passion, hard work and persistence in producing your own novel. Writing your very first novel is probably the scariest thing for any writer, and by ‘writing’ I also mean editing, which is a marathon in itself, as well as the pitching to Agents and Publishing Houses. It can all be pretty terrifying if you are a first time writer, especially when so much of the writing process is done in isolation.

As with any craft, the ability to write and to produce successful fiction gets better with practice and the nurturing of  your knowledge and awareness of the industry. There are so many resources available to writers. Whether it is online tutorials, professional-led workshops or just tea with like minded individuals who are there to feed your ideas, it is important to seek that out-of-self knowledge. Jessie Burton did just this. Her novel has been produced after years of careful cultivation and research. She attended, for example, Curtis Brown Creative’s Writing School in 2011. Offering both online and in person workshops, Curtis Brown Creative offers that all important safe-space for writers to air their ideas and vanquish their writer’s demons. With guest speakers who have found success in the literary industry as well weekly writing sessions with a successful author such as Matt Thorne, your writing is able to blossom, nurtured by people who are in the know and who have been through the process themselves.

As a novelist, you are your own business, you create your own product. One of the most valuable aspects of this course is the opportunity to learn about the industry and what happens once you have your fabulous book, like The Miniaturist, ready to go out to the public. At the end of the course, Curtis Brown Creative and their partner Conville and Walsh will read your novel synopsis and novel openings, offering you a valuable step inside the industry.

Though they cannot guarantee success, developing your writing amongst like-minded individuals could give you the boost you need to produce your own book like Jessie Burton. More recently still, Curtis Brown Creative students James Hannah and Kate Hamer have been selected for the Observer’s New Faces of Fiction 2015. Working on your craft in lively workshops such as these could be a crucial step towards producing, and publishing, your own brilliant work of fiction.

So, what about Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist? It is often hard to read a book – which has gained such accolades – in isolation, to be able to form one’s own opinion, without the influence of professional mutterings. Nonetheless, that is exactly what I aimed to do when I began reading The Miniaturist two weeks ago. Here’s a little summary without giving too much away…

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The Miniaturist revolves around the life of Petronella Oortman, or rather, Petronella Brandt, who arrives in Amsterdam as a young, 18 year old bride to a rich Merchant Trader in the 17th century.

The book starts necessarily slowly as Burton draws her reader from their contemporary lives to a completely different time and place – that of 17th century Amsterdam. We are as Nella is – new and inexperienced in this world. Nella arrives at her new home, beloved parakeet Peebo at her side, with the naive hope only found in young, inexperienced women. Once she gains a finger’s grip on the workings of her new surroundings (including the importance of reputation and business) Nella realises that the dream of living happily as a wealthy wife, with gurgling children bouncing around her whilst she reigns Queen in her beautiful townhouse, is just that – a dream.

Though often feeling out of her depth, the wedding gift offered by her distant husband, Johannes Brandt, comes as an unexpected comfort – an exquisite miniature house, the exact replica of the new one she lives in. Though she may find that her sharp sister-in-law, Marin, controls the workings of the house in which they live, she has the house in miniature… and it is all hers. The miniature is lavishly decorated with plush, expensive, velvet curtains and immaculate floors. Nella quickly overcomes her initial apprehension and gets in touch with The Miniaturist for some further additions to her house. It is from here, however, that Nella’s life and the lives of those around her, begins to spiral and intertwine in a mess of secrets, scandal and oncoming debt.

The Miniaturist hovers over Nella as an ever elusive figure in the story. She appears for a time to be a Prophet, as the intricately made figures and gifts that arrive unannounced and unasked for at Nella’s door seem to call out events yet to come, or appear to foresee events which she, Nella, had at first been blind to.

Nella’s fascination with The Miniaturist works as an intriguing central story. It is the main body of a tapestry through which numerous other, equally valuable, stories are woven. Their threads intertwine flawlessly and present twists and turns that come as both pleasant and unpleasant surprises.

Burton’s story, which is inspired by the real miniature house as owned by the real Petronella Oortman, is beautifully told. Her observations are on the one hand, innovative, and on the other, are so purely clear, simple, and on the money that you cannot imagine why you didn’t come up with such an observation yourself.

The miniature house the inspired the story, as given to Petronella Oortman by Johannes Brandt, currently in the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam.
The miniature house that inspired the story, as given to Petronella Oortman by Johannes Brandt, currently in the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam. (Image courtesy of http://www.rijksmuseum.nl)

The success of The Miniaturist is well deserved.

(One thing I would say before you go – once you’ve finished reading this novel, go back and read the first chapter again. The penny-dropping realisation may put a great smile on your face – for words at first pushed aside and forgotten all make complete sense in the end.)

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