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02 November 2015

Novels to come out of Curtis Brown Creative #4: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

by Leonora Craig Cohen

Jessie Burton became perhaps the most high-profile graduate of our creative writing courses when her debut novel The Miniaturist was published in July 2014. Jessie, who was in our very first writing group back in the spring of 2011, worked on the novel during the course and completed it in time for the 2013 London Book Fair, where it sparked a bidding war that ended with it being bought by Francesca Main at Picador. The novel went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies throughout the world, become Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2014, be named National Book Awards Book of the Year 2014, and be longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2015. Film rights have been bought by Company Pictures, responsible for the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Jessie Burton’s second novel, The Muse, will be published by Picador in July 2016.

Petronella – known to all as Nella – is only in her late teens when fate turns sour and her father dies, leaving the family destitute in a rural backwater of the Netherlands. Her ancient family name and good looks ensure a beneficial marriage to the middle-aged merchant, Johannes Brandt, and Nella arrives in Amsterdam to assume her duties as a devoted wife to this wealthy stranger. But once in the city, she is met with hostility and obfuscation: her new sister-in-law Marin is a strict Puritan who takes against her on sight and her husband is more interested in the customs house and foreign adventures than in her. Her only friends are her parakeet, Peebo, and Cornelia the housemaid.

A doll’s house bought for her by Johannes as an insulting, expensive toy soon becomes her way into the adult world from which he seeks to exclude her. Not long after her arrival, she begins to receive tiny copies of the people and the items in her house, so detailed that the miniaturist who makes them seems almost prescient. Even when Nella is disturbed enough to ask her anonymous donor to stop sending them, they keep coming. Is this person a friend, an enemy or something more complicated? But the identity of the miniaturist is not Nella’s only concern. She soon starts to realise that the Brandt fortune is built on uncertainty and lies. Even Marin, who counsels austere respectability and good relations with the prying burghers, has secrets of her own.

The Miniaturist is a charming art-historical mystery, which melds together aesthetic delight and exciting plot twists. Inspired by a real doll’s house that Jessie Burton came across in the Rijksmuseum, the story introduces us to the delights and horrors of 17th-century Amsterdam alongside a feisty narrator. From exotic banquets so real you can almost taste them to the grisly punishments in store for those who fall foul of the city’s rules, Nella’s new world is expertly brought to life by Burton. There is also great suspense as we discover how much depends on Nella’s ability to adapt to the strange circumstances into which she has been thrown. And we get to know and love the eccentric members of the family that Nella has joined – and become invested in their fight to exist despite the crushing conventions of the time. The Independent called it a ‘lushly written debut’ in which ‘… it’s as though figures from old Dutch masters come to life.’

Get your hand on a copy of The Miniaturist.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.

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