Amsterdam is quite obviously a metaphor in many senses for modern London, a place where capitalism rules and where couples like the Meermans are determined to make a killing with their sugar from Surinam and equally determined to destroy Brandt for not selling it. Nella comes from a pedigreed but bankrupt background, however conducts herself in many senses like any modern London teenager. She wanders freely in and out of the house, despite being a married woman in the 16th century, and she occasionally thinks feminist thoughts, in the company of her unmarried sister-in-law, the learned Marin. Both think that women should be the equal of men and strive towards it in their different ways.
Nella recognises homosexuality when she sees it at a glance and after the initial shock responds to it with a sophistication that may seem a little strange given the time and her sheltered background — though she is unsophisticated enough not to realise why her husband may be distant. The world she moves in is definitely 17th century with all its wealth of art and textures, a rich canvas punctuated by outbreaks of violence and the exoticism of the Far East embodied in Otto the blackamoor and the whippets with Indonesian names. The disruptive elements in the book come from Europe or, more specifically England, which is the country of freedom and violence.
All the beautiful descriptions and situations are Burton&’s version of smoke and mirrors, like the sound of doors opening in the night and a ghostly presence that is never really explained. It is quite obvious that there is a reason why Johannes avoids his wife&’s bed, despite the fact that she is ready and willing to oblige him. So too is the identity of Marin&’s lover.
Burton however persuades the reader to keep turning the pages till the very end, despite the fact that she never really answers several of the questions hovering in the reader&’s mind. Mainly that of the Miniaturist who seems to have second sight. She has a different workplace and is another Petronella who has realised her feminist ambitions but seems to focus on the Brandt household. However all that is unimportant in the face of Nella&’s coming of age. She grows up threw sorrow and learns to shoulder care in the face of almost unbearable tragedy. What matters most she realises is not material wealth, but the happiness of the people she has come to love.
The reviewer is a freelance contributor.