There’s a peculiar austerity to Jessie Burton’s writing. It’s interesting that she should have started her career – with the million-selling The Miniaturist (2014) – in Amsterdam during the last years of the Dutch golden age, when the wealth of the Calvinist Netherlands was matched only by its thrift and industriousness. That atmosphere of severity and opulence seems to have fed through to Burton’s prose at a formal level. Her writing is both removed and dignified, although this coldness is counteracted by an almost obsessive intimacy with the physical world. Objects illuminate the rooms around them; she is brilliant on the way that dress and decoration speak loudly of the personality and aspirations of those who possess them.
After two more or less contemporary novels, The Muse (2016) and The Confession (2019), and two books for younger readers, The Restless Girls (2018) and Medusa (2021), Burton has returned to the world of The Miniaturist for her fourth novel for adults. It’s always tricky to review a sequel without spoiling the first book for those who are yet to read it. Let us say that The Miniaturist ended with a birth and two deaths, and a new order imposed on the Brandt house on the Golden Bend of the Herengracht Canal.
We now leap forward 18 years to a very different Amsterdam. Ill-judged wars and poor investments have weakened the Netherlands and the city is under a cloud. We open on Thea’s 18th birthday, in a home that feels both claustrophobic and dogged by tragedy: “joy in this household is laced always with a fear of loss.” Thea is the narrative engine of this book as Nella, her sort-of-aunt, was the engine of the previous novel. Thea is sparkling and curious, desperate to know more about her dead mother. She’s also bewitched by a charismatic set designer, Walter, “the only person who can propel her from her covers”. Thea’s family, though, have other ideas about her romantic life and view her betrothal as a way of restoring a fortune that has been largely eroded.
It’s always interesting when a writer returns to the storyworld of a book after some time away. The failures tend to outnumber the hits – for every The Testaments there’s two or three Imperial Bedrooms or a Fight Club 2. With Burton, though, you get the sense of a writer far more comfortable in her skin, one who in Thea has found a character to reanimate the physical and emotional landscape of early modern Amsterdam. Thea is wilder and more wilful than Nella ever was and, despite the financial troubles that dog her family, this is a book with a warmer heart than the slightly chilly original. The titular Miniaturist of Burton’s debut makes a return here, leaving gifts that point to a supernatural ability to see past facades to deeper truths – a conceit that always seemed to gesture towards the power of the author.
In The House of Fortune, Burton has done that rare thing, following up a successful debut with a novel that is superior in both style and substance. What’s cheering is that, after a host of adventures, Thea and Nella are left staring out on a new world, suggesting there is more to be told of this boldly unconventional Dutch family.