Posted in Personal Purchase

The House of Fortune by Jessie Burton

I have to admit to being a HUGE Jessie Burton fan. I picked up The Miniaturist in our tiny bookstore just on the strength of the cover and I wasn’t disappointed. It followed the story of Nella, who has just become married to wealthy Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt and has been uprooted from the country to a large home in the city. As a wedding present, Johannes has commissioned a cabinet house based on his incredible home. This is a home of secrets, from Johannes to his rigid sister Marin and even the servants, all have their hidden lives. It’s when Nella commissions pieces from an unseen miniaturist that clues start to emerge. What is the miniaturist trying to tell her and will she see it before it’s too late? I met Jessie at a book event in Lincoln where she read from the book and took questions from the audience. She told us that Nella’s cabinet house was based on an example in the Rijksmusem in Amsterdam, something I’d love to go and look at one day. Someone asked about the mystery at the centre of her debut novel; we never see more than a glimpse of the miniaturist, we don’t know what she wants from Nella or why she sends the tiny figures. Burton said she didn’t want to pin it down or have a big reveal, so there was a suggestion from the audience that she was leaving it open for a sequel. When I found out about House of Fortune, I was excited but also scared. What if it didn’t match up to the debut that I loved?

As soon as I started to read I was right back there in Amsterdam. Jessie is a master at creating atmosphere and her opening is so evocative. The house feels almost claustrophobic and I could imagine the smell of polish and Cordelia’s cooking wafting from the kitchen. This is still a secretive house, where the previous generation’s actions are impacting on the next. We are eighteen years on from the terrible events of Nella’s first year of marriage – Johannes’s horrifying death at the hands of the state and the revelation of his sister Marin’s affair with Otto, their black servant. Her pregnancy was concealed for months under severe layers of black clothing and resulted in the birth of daughter Thea and Marin’s death. Thea is now 18 and Nella is trying to weigh up whether her darker skin might count against her in the marriage market, or whether the Brandt name keeps her just on the side of respectability? She certainly receives her share of gossip and sideways glances, but as they rarely socialise it’s never mattered before. However, things are changing in the Brandt household and Thea may be the only way the family survives. Things are moving behind the scenes, in the same way the scenery moves in the plays Thea loves at the theatre, but who is doing the moving and arranging? Both Nella and Thea have sensed a little frisson, a sense of being watched, followed by the hairs standing up on the back of their necks. When brown paper parcels start to appear on the townhouse steps Cordelia wonders if the miniaturist is back and what is her purpose?

Even now, this strange mysterious figure remains in the shadows, a flash of blonde hair under a hood is all we get and that could be anyone. There are two sets of figures in play here- the ones made for Nella 18 years ago that have been hidden away in a trunk full of Marin’s things in the attic. Then there are new ones, the first being a carving of Walter who is the scenery painter at the theatre Thea frequents every week. He’s completely anatomically correct, possibly because the maker is alluding to how Thea feels about him. Could this perfectly rendered man be an allusion to Thea having knowledge of a man she shouldn’t have? Is her carving a commentary on something that’s already happened or a course of action that could still be avoided? The second gift is a house, a tiny mansion edged in gold that Thea has never seen before, followed by a perfect pineapple. Thea really isn’t aware that their relatively respectable life in the city’s greatest townhouse is built on a house of cards. This unusual family are at a crossroads, no longer able to sustain themselves. They are down to their last painting, Otto has lost his job and there are three mouths to feed plus an historic house to maintain. Nella can see only one option – they must accept some of the social invitations that comes their way and use them to find Thea a rich husband. Otto is less enamoured of Nella’s plan for his daughter. He would like her to have the freedom of love. He has a different plan, involving a botanist called Caspar and Nella’s derelict country home of Assendelft. What neither of them know is that Thea is conducting a private life of her own, one that come crashing down on all of their plans.

I loved that Burton took us to Nella’s childhood, with the walls of Assendelft full of memories, good and bad. Over the eighteen years since Johannes’s death she has become a force to be reckoned with and this reminds us of how naïve and young she was at the beginning. I felt sad that she had almost written herself off, pinning all their hopes for the future on Thea and not even considering that she could be the one pursued by potential husbands. Wealthy widows can be very attractive in the marriage market and nobody knows what Johannes’s arrangements were for his wife. I felt that Nella didn’t want marriage, having been free for eighteen years it would certainly be hard to adjust to a more conventional woman’s role. I also really enjoyed being taken into the world of the theatre, where Thea is transfixed by the stories being told on stage. Her fear that someone has seen her hanging around backstage, especially since spending time with Walter really came across strongly. I felt for her and I wanted Thea to remember what it felt like to be a teenager with her whole family’s fortunes weighing heavy on her shoulders. Otto was a benevolent father, but had no others ideas as to how they could survive without selling the Brandt house. I was compelled to keep reading, completely caught up in the world of this strange family of outsiders, but also wondering if this time the miniaturist would be unmasked and her purpose revealed. I throughly enjoyed being back in Nella’s world and it renewed my desire to go to Amsterdam to see the original cabinet house that fired up Jessie’s imagination.

Meet the Author

Jessie Burton is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling novels The Miniaturist, The Muse, and The Confession, and of the children’s book The Restless Girls. Her novels have been translated into 38 languages, and she is a regular essay writer for newspapers and magazines.

Author:

Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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