Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
The Miniaturist is a captivating novel that I found difficult to put down. Set in Amsterdam in 1687, the novel follows four tumultuous months in the lives of a wealthy merchant family, the Brandt’s. Johannes Brandt is a successful merchant who has travelled the seven seas for the Dutch East India Company (VOC), bringing silks from what is now called India, spices from what is now called Indonesia and sugar from the Caribbean, among many other things. It is an exciting time to be Dutch, and specifically an Amsterdammer.
Amsterdam: Where the pendulum swings from God to a guilder.
The Amsterdammers are prosperous and experience a curious mixture of avarice and puritanism, led by their Calvinist spiritual leader Pastor Pellicorne, who reminds them that Amsterdam is sinking back into the marsh that it is built upon.
Owing to the positive agricultural conditions and financial strength of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, it was said that their poor ate much better than their counterparts in England, Italy, France and Spain. The rich ate best of all.
Author Jessie Burton obviously did a tremendous amount of research to write this, presumably historically accurate, novel. The level of detail is high, from the herring for penitents breakfast when Marin, the sister of Johannes is feeling repentant, to the monumental feast at the guild of the silversmiths:
Laughter rises above their hats, heads are thrown back – and amongst the tipped-up moony faces and russet cheeks, the beards flecked with tiny bits of crab, Johannes is in the centre, tanned and smiling
I found the details about the trade of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) particularly interesting. I’ve travelled through Indonesia and read about it’s history and the role of the VOC in that and the current conditions in Indonesia. I’ve been to the Netherlands a few times and read about it many times. Often I have wondered about the rise and survival of small nations like the Netherlands and the role of trade, domination and cunning in that. This book helped to provide some insights into that.
The surface of Amsterdam thrives on these mutual acts of surveillance, the neighborly smothering of a person’s spirit.
Into this world arrives a new bride for Johannes Brandt (aged thirty-nine), Petronella Oortman (aged eighteen) from the rural village, Assendelft. ‘Nella is naive and excited to escape the monotony of village life and become the wife of a wealthy merchant in the grand city of Amsterdam. The Brandt house is full of mysteries, whispered voices in the middle of the night, listening at keyholes by servants, secrets and things left unsaid. Nella is sad and alone in this rich house, living with her acerbic sister-in-law Marin, the maid Cornelia and the freed-slave turned man-servant Otto, while her husband Johannes is rarely at home and when he is home he is remote. Throughout the many events that unfold in this captivating novel, Nella matures and eventually finds herself at home in the Brandt house in Amsterdam.
Burton’s writing style is very good. She uses a good mix of descriptions to set the scene and adds a few words of old Dutch to add atmosphere. Burton reveals just enough about each character to keep the reader both engaged but also on the edge of the seat wondering what will happen next and why that character behaves in that way. I particularly liked the constant tension that she maintained throughout the novel. The chapters are a good length at 7-8 pages making it easy to snatch a chapter over morning coffee before dashing off to work. The book is presented in chronological order, making it easy to follow. Burton has Nella, Johannes and Marin Brandt all express modern views that would have been outrageously progressive for the 17th Century but I didn’t mind that. I can recommend this clever novel that kept me guessing until the end.
The bars on our cage are of our own making.