Jessie Burton's gripping debut novel is set in 17th-century Amsterdam, on the surface a rather prim and proper city which almost succeeds in hiding the damp and mould that creeps into every home and every life.
It opens with 18-year-old Petronella Oortman arriving to begin life with her wealthy husband, Johannes Brandt, a merchant trader and one of the most powerful men in the city. Nella is not met by her husband but by his stern sister, Marin, and the house's two servants, Otto and Cornelia. It is a strange and unsettling welcome for a teenage bride from the country and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Things do not improve when Nella does meet Johannes. He is kind to her but treats his dogs with more affection, which angers his sister Marin who wastes no time in scolding him. It is through this hot exchange of words that Nella learns that it was Marin's idea for the reluctant Johannes to marry. To appease the women in his life, Johannes buys Nella an expensive and minutely detailed replica of their house which she is to furnish as she pleases. Nella is dismayed, feeling that Johannes is treating her like a child, but she decides to take her wedding gift at face value and employs a miniaturist to make pieces of furniture for it. She never meets the miniaturist face to face but when pieces she hasn't ordered arrive with disturbing, cryptic messages, Nella becomes increasingly convinced that she is being spied upon.
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Burton's narrative centres on Nella and her relationships with Marin and the overly-familiar servant, Cornelia. Nella is a little afraid of Marin, who not only runs the household but discusses business strategies with Johannes, which both surprises Nella and makes her jealous. Cornelia behaves like no servant Nella has ever met, with her constant chatter and gossip, but her loyalty to Johannes and Marin knows no bounds. Nella soon realises that without Cornelia, her life in the Brandt household would be even lonelier. Because of her family's precarious financial position, she cannot consider leaving her 'good' marriage and returning to genteel poverty in the country. Young as she is, she must find a way to make her new life work.
Nella has to grow up very quickly and Burton handles her development well. Occasionally Nella feels a little too modern in her views and attitudes to be a young woman of the late 17th century but this is a minor criticism of such an appealing character. Burton employs a light, formal style of language throughout which, alongside a scattering of Dutch words with their unfamiliar sounds, evokes a palpable sense of another time and place. There is a strong sensation of looking through a window into the lives of 17th-century Dutch families and seeing past the public faces and into their most private moments.
The wintry city of Amsterdam provides a gloomy setting, the cold and constant damp an ominous reflection of life with the Brandts. Burton gives succinct explanations of the workings of Holland as a trading nation and the rules of the various guilds. Johannes spends a lot of time at the bourse, the commodity trading centre, and at his warehouses where the goods he buys and sells are stored. It is when Johannes takes on a sugar consignment to sell for a former friend that the seeds of the Brandts' destruction are sown. Slowly the sugar begins to spoil and the secrets that ruin Nella's dream of a happy family unfurl.
After the deep unease of the opening, Burton slowly ratchets up the tension until the Brandt family faces ruin or triumph in a scandalous court case. Will the great and good of Amsterdam value the guilder and business over what passes between adults in private? What happens next is as brutal as it is hypocritical but in a strange way it is the making of Nella.
Burton set herself no easy task when she decided to write this complex novel, full not only of beautiful historical details but of rounded characters that are easy to care for. It is a delight to read such an intelligent page-turner.