The book starts with the funeral of an unnamed but, according to the narrator, unpopular person as observed by an unnamed woman who, after other attendees have left, leaves a miniature of a house at the grave before deciding she has to leave.
When the story proper start it is 1686, about three months prior to the funeral described in the prologue and what we get of course are the events leading up to that hasty funeral, be it they’re no longer narrated from the same perspective. The full story comes to us courtesy of Petronella Oortman – Brandt, who arrives in Amsterdam to join her new husband, full of hopes and dreams only to soon discover that reality doesn’t live up them. Nobody in her new family is exactly who or what she expected to find and it’s only a matter of days before her expectations are drowned in realities and secrets.
The gift of the miniature house is strange in and of itself. Nella would rather welcome her husband to their wedding bed – as much as the idea scares her – than be given a toy. But as soon as the miniatures to fill the house start arriving it becomes clear to both the reader and Nella that something mysterious is going on. The person making the miniatures seems to know things about the inhabitants of the house on the Herengracht which nobody should be able to know. What’s more, the miniatures are foreshadowing events in a most macabre way. It isn’t long before Nella is torn between obsession and repulsion, both of which are fuelled by the fact that the miniaturist remains elusive while apparently present everywhere.
What follows is a rather sad tale of what happens when social mores are in conflict with personal preferences, especially during a time in which religion more or less determined how people could and couldn’t behave. It is more than that though, this is also the story of Nella’s coming of age – as her new life falls apart around her ears Nell has to learn new skills, find new strengths and reassess many of the preconceptions she grew up with.
For me personally the most fascinating part of this book was spending time in Amsterdam in the 17th century. So much and yet so little has changed. You could walk through Amsterdam’s city centre today with this book as your guide and the canals and roads would still be more or less as described on these pages. I also learned one or two things about the history of Amsterdam I hadn’t been aware off. For example, I didn’t know that in the past personal addresses were distinguished by markings on the houses – such as a sun for the miniaturist.
I also liked that the story deals with topics that were (and for some still are) controversial up until recently. I don’t want to go into exactly what those topics are because that would give away too much of the story, but it was fascinating, if difficult, to look at them from an historic perspective.
I find myself a bit torn about the way language was used in this book. While the formal way in which the story was told made it feel more authentic and period appropriate, it also became a bit overwhelming. And while I personally had no issues with the use of (old) Dutch words and terms in the book, I can easily imagine that it might be tiresome for non-Dutch speakers to have to refer to the glossary at the end on several occasions.
I did have one huge issue with this book and that’s the way it ended. While this book was well written, mesmerising and intriguing, the ending left me unsatisfied. I always enjoy it when a book allows me to embroider on the story after the last chapter. This book however left me with too many unanswered questions. I had no idea what the future might look like for any of the characters or how they might be able to pull any sort of future off for themselves. Not to mention that the main mystery in this book never really got resolved. Again, it’s impossible to say more without resorting to spoilers, so I won’t, but it did leave me feeling disappointed.
My overall verdict therefore is as follows. This was a well written, well research and fascinating story, although not always easy to read. It also left me feeling somewhat short changed by the time the story ended, which is a shame because until that point this book was heading for a solid five star rating.