He knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
First Published: 3rd July 2014
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2015
It’s 1686 and Nella moves to the home of her new husband in Amsterdam. She expects happiness but instead receives a frosty reception – she’s not particularly wanted, her sister-in-law is clearly mistress of the house, the servants seem too big for their boots, and her husband makes no move to consummate the marriage. Instead of the life she thought she would have, Nella finds herself living in a mystery and this only increases further when her husband buys her a miniature of their house and the creator she assigns to complete it appears to know an uncanny amount about the family.
The Miniaturist is a book that could have been amazing but is sadly held back by a lack of focus, poor writing, and a decisive gap between the characters and the readers.
Burton seems to have chosen the 1600s to gain the attention of history lovers. The book could have been set at some other time at no cost, and the characters do not at all conform to the time period. By this I do not mean the way they defy convention – indeed servants on a par with their masters is not unbelievable – more it’s the way Burton wields power that is an issue. As an example, Nella has a fit over something most of her era would naturally have a fit about, before doing an about turn and completely changing her opinion within hours, emulating views of the present day.
Is Nella confident or nervous? Burton cannot decide. One moment her character is close to being obnoxious, the next she’s a delicate flower who will not speak a word. She leaves the house without question one day, then stays in her room and lets people make all the decisions for her the next. It is clear that Nella is a device – this is a plot-driven novel – but there is nothing to hang on to, so to speak. Burton hasn’t made up her mind and wants both worlds.
The characters never come into their own. You’re never given a reason to care about them; they are distant from the first page to the last. A lot of this is down to the way the author chose to write her story – the particular way she uses the present tense, third person narration, does not allow the reader to feel they are at all close to what’s happening. Instead there’s the sense Burton realised, at some point, that she should have been writing in the first person but didn’t want to rewrite what she already had. Nella does lots of thinking and imagining when dialogue would work better. Everything is too detailed, info-dump is common.
Much of the issue is that The Miniaturist is full of drama. Full of drama to a melodramatic, unnecessary degree. As the book progresses it reads ever more like a prose version of a theatrical production, the problem being that theatre has to be expressive to reach the audience at the back of the room but a book by its very nature has no requirement for it. Disaster follows disaster to a silly level and social issues are packed in like sardines.
As said, this book is not very well written. Whilst modern language is natural – a book in old English would be difficult to read – very modern slang and colloquialisms pull you out of the story. Burton moves between ‘oldy-worldy’ English grammar, modern English grammar, and American grammar, making for dialogue that doesn’t ring true. (The characters may be from Amsterdam, but they would not have peppered their language with Spanish grammar, for example.)
Lastly, it must be said questions are not answered. The question of the miniaturist is never answered. There is a half answer that spells out who they are in terms of background, but you never learn the mystery nor do you ever really meet the miniaturist. The question of what will happen to these characters now they are in a bad position is completely forgotten.
The Miniaturist is strictly okay. Read it if you will, but don’t pass up the chance to read another book for this one.
March 18, 2015, 5:43 pm
I’m sorry to hear this didn’t do it for you. My mom just lent me this after she read and loved it.
March 18, 2015, 9:06 pm
Sorry you didn’t enjoy this. I liked it a bit more than you did, but I do agree with a lot of your points. I was also disappointed that the mystery surrounding the miniaturist was never fully resolved – and I’ve definitely found that third person present tense often creates a distance between the reader and the characters.
March 21, 2015, 12:27 pm
I borrowed this book from the library and read the beginning. I wasn’t taken with it at all and returned it. I found the use of the third person, present tense most irritating. After reading your post I’m glad I didn’t bother reading any more of the book.
March 22, 2015, 7:47 pm
I’m glad I’ve not bought this book now. I have been sort of considering it, but I doubt i’ll enjoy it based on this.