I know a brilliant book by a very particular feeling. It’s a yearning: I become insatiable, wishing I could force myself awake long enough for just another chapter, or that I could skip my train stop and keep reading until the end of the line and back again. I want to completely, ferociously devour every word. Alas, this yearning is twofold. Where one part of me yearns for the final page, another part pleads to linger in the story. I want to hover endlessly in these incredible, intangible worlds. It is a futile idea, of course. I finish a brilliant book soon enough: wonderfully satisfied, and wonderfully solemn.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is the latest book to make me feel the Brilliant Book Feeling. It joins Burial Rites in the now two-title club of Terri’s Brilliant Books (or, The Precious Few Books To Which I’ve Awarded Five Stars Since I Started Recording My Reading on Goodreads). Like Burial Rites, The Miniaturist captivated the wanderlust in me – but rather than travelling to the dark, bitter cold of 1890s Iceland, this story takes us to Amsterdam, 1686. It is the Dutch Golden Age, a period in which the Netherlands flourished as the world’s foremost trading and shipping centre. Here we meet a young woman named Petronella Oortman.
Nella arrives in Amsterdam to the door of her new husband, Johannes Brandt, who is a wealthy merchant of the VOC (or as we might know, the Dutch East India Company). Johannes remains removed and mysterious to Nella, and she is left to find her own feet in a house of unexpected and not altogether inviting characters. What is more, when Johannes bestows a strange and sudden gift upon Nella – a dollhouse replica of their own house – Nella is enlightened to the even stranger miniaturist, who recreates Nella’s new family in ways that are both extraordinary and frightening.
Burton weaves a world rich in history, with characters that are perpetually interesting and surprising. As Nella uncovers the secrets of the Brandt household, so too are readers revealed the intricate design of Burton’s storytelling. Never in one novel have I so often wanted to flip back to page one and re-read all over again with a completely new perspective. Again in parallel with Burial Rites, The Miniaturist also shapes a tale of strong women, their powerful relationships and a discord in their assumed place in society and history. Top that with the canals and cobbled streets of one of my favourite cities in the world, and you start to understand why I’m all a fluster over this book.
There are many sweet treats that pop up throughout The Miniaturist – and indeed sugar itself plays a hearty part in this story – but I knew very quickly the baked good that was to be companion to this piece. At the time of our tale, the VOC had a total monopoly on trade in Asia, and this was synonymous with the all-important monopoly on the world’s spice trade. It is because of the Dutch Golden Age that spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and cloves came to feature so significantly in Dutch cooking, and do so to this day. And to me, there is no finer recipe to showcase these spices than the Dutch speculaas biscuit.
Speculaas have been a beloved part of my baking repertoire for a solid two years now, thanks to this gorgeous recipe from Irvin of Eat the Love. These biscuits are crisp, beautifully spicy and very, very moreish. I adore them. Speculaas are traditionally made for the Netherlands’ St. Nicholas Day at the beginning of December, and usually stamped with delicate images or scenes. Without a special rolling pin or moulds to make such prints, I’ve opted for my stegosaurus (or what I like to call, the speculaasaurus) or Ninja Bread Men cookie cutters in the past. This time, it seemed only right to put my miniature gingerbread man cookie cutter to work.
Happy reading, folks – and make sure let me know what wonderful books have hit your sweet spot lately. x