Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge
I was recommended this book by the owner of one of my local independent bookshops. I’d had enough of the heavy stuff, so I asked her to recommend something light. I gave her a few pointers about what kind of fiction I like, and she came up with Jessie Burton’s debut novel.
It’s a well told story about expectation, disappointment, secrets and betrayal. At times it seemed quite a modern story to me, at odds slightly with its 17th century setting. Sometimes the language didn’t feel right, but that didn’t stop it being a gripping read. I finished it in a day.
The main character is a young woman, Nella, who is married off by her mother to a rich merchant in order to secure her future. The marriage of convenience doesn’t meet Nella’s expectations, but teaches her a whole range of other things.
There are echoes of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in the strangeness that envelopes Nella’s new life. She is an intelligent and curious girl who doesn’t take being treated as a child lying down. She has spirit and a mind of her own and is determined to winkle out the truth behind her new husband’s life.
In an attempt to distract her from the inadequacies of her new life, her husband buys her a cabinet modelled on the rooms of his house. Her sister in law provides her with promissory notes and the 17th century Amsterdam equivalent of the Yellow Pages, and Nella begins to furnish the house with the assistance of a mysterious miniaturist who knows more about Nella’s new life than Nella herself does.
I enjoyed the references to spices and other scents, and the way they are used to add another dimension to the descriptions of Nella’s environment and the people within it. I loved the air of mystery and Nella’s tenacity. She is a likeable protagonist. The tension as the story unfurls is exquisite. My heart was in my mouth at times, almost unbearably so.
The story is also about choice, in particular choices made by those who aren’t recognised or accepted by society as having rights. This Amsterdam household is made up of people who must hide their truths from wider society and who work together to create a kind of freedom that is also a prison.