Partly this is a physical problem. I have an injured dog wearing a cone trying to get as close to me as possible, forcing me to twist toward the keyboard which will result in muscle rebellion later. (He scratched his eye and will be fine, but is so very pitiful right now.)
But more than that, this book is hard to describe because of how different and solitary it is. I keep pausing to find my adjectives and debate connotation over denotation. It’s a strange book, but that’s not quite the right word. It’s not something brand new, but it is very much its own thing. I’m not madly in love with it, but these characters are absolutely going to live in my mind and I know I’m going to be wondering what came next. Burton did something that’s now part of me, and not all authors win the rights to my brain space this way.
It’s 1686. Nella is 18 and newly married. A quick ceremony and her husband is off without a wedding night or even a kiss at the ceremony. Nella leaves home to join him in Amsterdam. Her father is recently dead, leaving the family with an old name and endless debts. Her mother wrote letters, found a solution for her eldest, and here she is, standing in front of her husband’s house, waiting for someone to open the door.
Her husband’s house. Her house?
Instead of the comforts of wealth she may have expected, she is met by a cold sister who has no interest in kindness or conversation. Is Nella to be the mistress or merely a child in Marin’s way? What does Marin want?
And where is her husband? And why doesn’t Marin know where her brother is?
So many secrets and confusion for both me and Nella and I found myself quickly wondering if there would be any happy endings in this book.
I am the worst at piecing together mysteries and rarely figure out the secrets ahead of time. I was searching for clues throughout these pages and while I had guessed at a few, I had no idea what the full truth was. Burton is very careful with her slipped in clues and sentences that I had to go back to later.
Something is wrong in this house, but also on the streets and canals of Amsterdam. There is money, but there is also fear of God.
Nella receives gifts that she doesn’t understand. Items that she ordered, but then others that are too real. Someone knows what she doesn’t and can see into rooms that Nella thinks are closed. She tries to puzzle out the meanings of the pieces and cannot tell if she is being warned or if she is being toyed with.
Money is power but secrets are worth more. Nella comes to her husband’s house with few skills and grasps for friendship and knowledge anywhere she can find it. Her husband, when he is there, is kind, but something is wrong. Marin and Johannes fight and I was as lost as Nella trying to figure out their relationship. They each protect the other, but from what? What secrets do they share and what’s being hidden? Who is running the business and who keeps the family safe?
And still the gifts come.
One of the strengths of this book was that all of the characters were well developed and written. I didn’t hate anyone, mostly because I was so confused. I knew Marin had a past and there must be a reason for her to behave the way she does, especially toward Nella. And her actions felt so real. There were moments of… not kindness, but a sort of understanding where it was clear she didn’t wish harm on Nella, but painfully understood that Nella was in no way prepared for the truths behind closed doors. Her anger with her brother was also shot through with love and I knew that something must have happened that Marin was trying to either make up for or protect him from. Or punish him with? It depended on the sentence.
Nella was a perfect slate for the story to be written on because she was a complete outsider. Nothing was familiar to her, and things she was expecting from a marriage weren’t there. She had to piece things together, and because the setting of the story was completely unfamiliar to me as well, I was right there with her in confusion. She’s not a child, but with her lack of knowledge, she might have been a schoolgirl still learning basic lessons. She struggles to keep her feet beneath her and hang on to her dignity. She has value and she knows if she can just find a crack to dig into or a corner to call her own, she’ll be OK.
But eventually things begin to slip out from behind closed doors and Nella has to decide what to do in order to keep the family intact.