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When we rejoin Nella Oortman, the heroine of Jessie Burton’s blockbuster 2014 debut The Miniaturist, we find her almost as we left her. She still lives in her dead husband Johannes Brandt’s home on the Herengracht canal in Amsterdam, along with Cornelia the cook, Johannes’s once-enslaved manservant Otto, and Thea, the child Otto fathered with Johannes’s steely sister, Marin. So far so familiar, but 18 years have passed: Nella is now 37 and baby Thea a young woman. The three unrelated adults have bonded into a family after the deaths of Marin and Johannes, but their fortunes are dwindling and the once lavish house has been stripped bare.
The family is a curiosity – “the black man who lives on the Herengracht, his mixed daughter, and the widow of the man drowned by the city for his supposed sins” – and Thea’s status as a Black heiress is troubling to the upper-class Amsterdammers she mingles with, who must weigh her “whiff of scandal” against her stratospherically expensive and fashionable home. Nella is keen to solve the family’s money problems by arranging her a lucrative marriage, but Thea resists. Just as her aunt once did, Thea believes in true love. Unlike Nella, she believes she’s found it, in the arms of a handsome theatre set decorator.
The mirroring of these two teenage ingenues is the great strength of The House of Fortune: like Nella, Thea’s background is one of foundering respectability; like Nella, Thea’s fortune rests on her marriage; like Nella, Thea receives mysterious gifts from “the miniaturist”, a shadowy craftswoman whose wax figures hint at young women’s secrets and dreams. But where The Miniaturist centred young Nella’s perspective without question, The House of Fortune frames Thea through her aunt’s maturity and experience, revealing her as vulnerable, fallible, credulous. This distorted echo of Burton’s debut is clever and satisfying: both Nella and Thea are meatier and more complex than the “plucky young heroine” so over-represented in historical fiction, and the novel is stronger for it.
The novel captures the surprise of ageing, the realisation that comes in our 30s that our potential is narrowing
Burton, older now too, is an acute observer. While Thea finds her ageing family in their nightclothes “mortifying” – “I will never let my body flap about like that” – Nella suffers moments of envy towards the niece she raised, “a mixture of awe and irritation, and under that, a current of fear”. The novel captures the surprise of ageing, the realisation that comes in our 30s that our die is cast, our wide-open potential narrowing. Nella has dulled and slipped into the comfort of social patterns, arranging a high-status marriage for Thea despite her own unhappy experience.
The world of early 18th-century Amsterdam is knowledgeably evoked, but Nella’s insistence that ladylike Thea “sees the world, but does not immerse herself in it” is telling. The Brandts regularly remind one another of “the ways of this city”, and although “everyone knows how much Amsterdammers love a painting”, Nella and Thea remain perplexed by the iconography of the Netherlands’ golden age. Confronted with a carved misericord, Thea knows “there will be a moral, because this is the Old Church in Amsterdam”. This heavy-handed signposting had its place in The Miniaturist, since teenage Nella was a newcomer to the city, but Thea is a native. The Brandts read sometimes like expats from the 21st century, coolly reflecting on the culture they exist alongside, internalising none of it. It makes the fiction easily digestible, these characters with their reassuringly modern sensibilities leading us gently through a problematic past; but there might have been a greater sense of challenge and jeopardy if the Brandts really were people of their time.
All this said, The House of Fortune is a worthy sequel, mature and thoughtful. There’s something comforting about its circularity. The plot would function without the reappearance of the miniaturist herself (she takes up scant page space, and we learn nothing new about her), but her little tokens unify the stories of Thea and Nella, invoking the past while hinting at the future. Hidebound Nella needs to break from convention; hotheaded Thea needs a greater sense of continuity: both must look backwards to move forward. There’s a fine line between comfort and stagnation, Burton warns us. As the inscription on Marin’s tomb proclaims, “Things can change”, and building a new life may include embracing what we always had. We can return home, Burton tells us; whatever our age, we can “begin again with a seedling”.
• The House of Fortune by Jessie Burton is published by Picador (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.