The Qwillery is thrilled to share with you an excerpt from Jessie Burton's debut, The Miniaturist.
Mid-October 1686 The Herengracht canal, Amsterdam
On the step of her new husband’s house, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker, embarrassed by the thud. No one comes, though she is expected. The time was prearranged and letters written, her mother’s paper so thin compared with Brandt’s expensive vellum. No, she thinks, this is not the best of greetings, given the blink of a marriage ceremony the month before—no garlands, no betrothal cup, no wedding bed. Nella places her small trunk and birdcage on the step. She knows she’ll have to embellish this later for home, when she’s found a way upstairs, a room, a desk.
Nella turns to the canal as bargemen’s laughter rises up the opposite brickwork. A puny lad has skittled into a woman and her basket of fish, and a half-dead herring slithers down the wide front of the seller’s skirt. The harsh cry of her country voice runs under Nella’s skin. “Idiot! Idiot!” the woman yells. The boy is blind, and he grabs in the dirt for the escaped herring as if it’s a silver charm, his fingers quick, not afraid to feel around. He scoops it, cackling, running up the path with his catch, his free arm out and ready.
Nella cheers silently and stays to face this rare October warmth, to take it while she can. This part of the Herengracht is known as the Golden Bend, but today the wide stretch is brown and workaday. Looming above the sludge-colored canal, the houses are a phenomenon. Admiring their own symmetry on the water, they are stately and beautiful, jewels set within the city’s pride. Above their rooftops Nature is doing her best to keep up, and the clouds in colors of saffron and apricot echo the spoils of the glorious republic.
Nella turns back to the door, now slightly ajar. Was it like this before? She cannot be sure. She pushes on it, peering into the void as cool air rises from the marble. “Johannes Brandt?” she calls—loud, a little panicked. Is this a game? she thinks. I’ll be standing here come
January. Peebo, her parakeet, thrills the tips of his feathers against the cage bars, his faint cheep falling on the marble. Even the now-quiet canal behind them seems to hold its breath.
Nella is sure of one thing as she looks deeper into the shadows. She’s being watched. Come on, Nella Elisabeth, she tells herself, stepping over the threshold. Will her new husband embrace her, kiss her or shake her hand like it’s just business? He didn’t do any of those things at the ceremony, surrounded by her small family and not a single member of his.
To show that country girls have manners too, she bends down and removes her shoes—dainty, leather, of course her best—although what their point has been she can’t now say. Dignity, her mother said, but dignity is so uncomfortable. She slaps the shoes down, hoping the
noise will arouse somebody, or maybe scare them off. Her mother calls her overimaginative, Nella-in-the-Clouds. The inert shoes lie in anticlimax and Nella simply feels a fool.
Outside, two women call to each other. Nella turns, but through the open door she sees only the back of one woman, capless, golden-headed and tall, striding away toward the last of the sun. Nella’s own hair has loosened on the journey from Assendelft, the light breeze letting wisps escape. To tuck them away will make her more nervous than she can bear to seem, so she leaves them tickling her face.
“Are we to have a menagerie?”
The voice sails sure and swift from the darkness of the hall. Nella’s skin contracts, for being right about her suspicions can’t banish the goose bumps. She watches as a figure glides from the shadows, a hand outstretched—in protest or in greeting, it is hard to tell. It is a woman, straight and slim and dressed in deepest black, the cap on her head starched and pressed to white perfection. Not a wisp of her hair escapes, and she brings with her the vaguest, strangest scent of nutmeg. Her eyes are gray, her mouth is solemn. How long has she been there, watching? Peebo chirrups at the intervention.
“This is Peebo,” Nella says. “My parakeet.”
“So I see,” says the woman, gazing down at her. “Or hear. I take it you have not brought any more beasts?”
“I have a little dog, but he’s at home—”
“Good. It would mess in our rooms. Scratch the wood. Those small ones are an affectation of the French and Spanish,” the woman observes. “As frivolous as their owners.”
“And they look like rats,” calls a second voice from somewhere in the hall.
The woman frowns, briefly closing her eyes, and Nella takes her in, wondering who else is watching this exchange. I must be younger than her by ten years, she thinks, though her skin’s so smooth. As the woman moves past Nella toward the doorframe, there is a grace in her movements, self-aware and unapologetic. She casts a brief, approving glance at the neat shoes by the door and then stares into the cage, her lips pressed tight together. Peebo’s feathers have puffed in fear.
Nella decides to distract her by joining hands in greeting, but the woman flinches at the touch.
“Strong bones for seventeen,” the woman says.
“I’m Nella,” she replies, retracting her hand. “And I’m eighteen.”
“I know who you are.”
“My real name is Petronella, but everyone at home calls me—”
“I heard the first time.”
“Are you the housekeeper?” Nella asks. A giggle is badly stifled in the hallway shadows. The woman ignores it, looking out into the pearlescent dusk. “Is Johannes here? I’m his new wife.” The woman still says nothing. “We signed our marriage a month ago, in Assendelft,”
Nella persists. It seems there is nothing else to do but to persist.
“My brother is not in the house.”
Another giggle from the darkness. The woman looks straight into Nella’s eyes. “I am Marin Brandt,” she says, as if Nella should understand. Marin’s gaze may be hard, but Nella can hear the precision faltering in her voice. “He’s not here,” Marin continues. “We thought
he’d be. But he’s not.”
“Where is he, then?”
Marin looks out toward the sky again. Her left hand fronds the air, and from the shadows near the staircase two figures appear. “Otto,” she says.
A man comes toward them and Nella swallows, pressing her cold feet upon the floor.
Otto’s skin is dark, dark brown everywhere, his neck coming out from the collar, his wrists and hands from his sleeves—all unending, dark brown skin. His high cheeks, his chin, his wide brow, every inch. Nella has never seen such a man in her life.
Marin seems to be watching her to see what she will do. The look in Otto’s large eyes makes no acknowledgment of Nella’s ill-concealed fascination. He bows to her and she curtsies, chewing her lip till the taste of blood reminds her to be calm. Nella sees how his skin glows
like a polished nut, how his black hair springs straight up from his scalp. It is a cloud of soft wool, not flat and greasy like other men’s. “I—” she says.
Peebo begins to chirp. Otto puts his hands out, a pair of pattens resting on his broad palms. “For your feet,” he says.
His accent is Amsterdam—but he rolls the words, making them warm and liquid. Nella takes the pattens from him and her fingers brush his skin. Clumsily she slips the raised shoes onto her feet. They are too big, but she doesn’t dare say it, and at least they lift her soles off the chilly marble. She’ll tighten the leather straps later, upstairs—if she ever gets there, if they ever let her past this hall.
“Otto is my brother’s manservant,” says Marin, her eyes still fixed on Nella. “And here is Cornelia, our maid. She will look after you.”
Cornelia steps forward. She is a little older than Nella, perhaps twenty, twenty-one—and slightly taller. Cornelia pins her with an unfriendly grin, her blue eyes moving over the new bride, seeing the tremor in Nella’s hands. Nella smiles, burnt by the maid’s curiosity, struggling to say some piece of empty thanks. She is half grateful, half ashamed when Marin cuts her off.
“Let me show you upstairs,” Marin says. “You will want to see your room.”
Nella nods and a look of amusement flickers to life in Cornelia’s eyes. Blithe pirrips from the cage bounce high up the walls, and Marin indicates to Cornelia with a flick of her wrist that the bird must go to the kitchen.
“But the cooking fumes,” Nella protests. Marin and Otto turn back to her. “Peebo likes the light.”
Cornelia takes up the cage and starts swinging it like a pail. “Please, be careful,” says Nella.
Marin catches Cornelia’s eye. The maid continues to the kitchen, accompanied by the thin melody of Peebo’s worried cheeps.
From The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Copyright 2014 Jessie Burton. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Ecco, August 26, 2014
Hardcover and eBook,416 pages
Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion—a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.
”There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . .“
On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.
But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .
Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?
Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.
Jessie Burton was born in London in 1982. She studied at Oxford University and the Central School of Speech and Drama, and still works as an actress in London. She lives in southeast London, not far from where she grew up.