Enid Shomer’s seventh book, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was named one of the six best historical fiction novels of 2012 by National Public Radio. Shomer won the Iowa Fiction Prize for her first collection of stories Imaginary Men, and the Florida Gold Medal for her second, Tourist Season (Random House, 2007), which was also selected for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” series. She is also the author of four books of poetry. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Paris Review, and many other publications. As Visiting Writer, she has taught at the University of Arkansas, Florida State University, and the Ohio State University among others. She lives in Tampa, Florida. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is her first novel.
Around the corner from our house lived a frail, white-haired man and his wife, the English teacher who had my brother expelled from eleventh grade. Perhaps they pitied me for his crimes, for that year, when I turned nine, the husband began making me dollhouse miniatures. Wordlessly, he’d motion me to the door and hand them over wrapped in tissue: chairs and a table, a skillet from crimped tin, a baked turkey carved from wood. I was a shy kid; all I ever said was “thanks.” I never told him these were my favorite possessions or that I considered them artistic masterpieces compared to the crude miniatures from occupied Japan sold at Woolworth’s, all of which were made of a slick pink plastic the color of organ meats.
I kept my minikins in a drawer and only played with them when I was alone. Perhaps because I was not much cuddled or held as a child, I took especial pleasure in arranging and touching my small treasures. Their very size made perfection seem attainable, and imparted a powerful sense of control and pride of ownership. My brother, who had a model train in his attic bedroom, must have thrived on similar satisfactions—on the aura of impending action in the landscape glued to the 4×8 foot piece of plywood. Soon the train would puff fake smoke through the motionless forest, past the tiny waiting dogs, the penned cattle just beginning to turn their ears in the direction of the sound.
Three years later, my neighbor died and his widow moved away. I began to acquire my own miniatures: bitsy scissors that snipped, a doll’s porcelain tea service, a real screwdriver no larger than a thumbtack, the final surprise in a nesting set that belonged to my father. I quickly became a connoisseur, rejecting anything with inauthentic proportions, mold seams, sloppy paint, immovable parts.
But nothing I owned was as fine as the furnishings and accoutrements of the Thorne Rooms, which I recently visited at the Art Institute of Chicago: earring-sized crystal chandeliers that cast milky droplets of light; cranberry lusters tinkling on a tiny marble shelf; crumb-sized ink pots; a red and white jade chess set with rooks and pawns smaller than gnats; dime-sized Limoges portrait plates achieved with a single bristle.
And here is Mrs. Thorne herself in an artist’s smock, leaning over a magnifier in her studio, surrounded by the artisans she commissioned to create the rooms. Whether French Empire antechamber with pietra dura floor, English refectory with copper chargers, or California living room with stamp-sized modernist paintings, everywhere an inch equals a foot.
At a time when most women of means or brains were limited to becoming socialites or patrons, Mrs. Thorne (née Narcissa Niblack) turned to the arts and charity, but her secret passion was for nubbins. As a girl, her uncle, an admiral in the Navy, sent her “smalls” from around the world. She amassed a huge collection in her own right. In middle-age, she began to plan her legacy: sixty-eight historically illustrative rooms so perfectly executed that it’s impossible to detect their diminutive scale in photographs. Twelve-inch ceilings float above veneered chests and japanned desks, palatial petit-point rugs.Set in the museum wall behind a pane of glass, each room is a complete and expansive household, with adjacent rooms, not wholly visible, yet furnished to the last chair-rail. Bedrooms, studies, gardens, even distant mountains and the light grid of cities peek through hallways, windows, French doors. Everywhere, there is the illusion of natural light.
Everywhere, the absence of residents seems merely a coincidental pause in the pulse of life. A pair of reading glasses hold down the pages of a Chiclet-sized book; coal spills from a scuttle in the frosty entry to the kitchen; a swatch of knitting on needles finer than straight pins trails from a basket. And on a braid rug, an inch-long doll with porcelain head and arms and soft, stuffed body slouches, waiting for a little girl to return.
Scattered in other museums are equally impressive smalls. An artisan in Russia has fashioned a globe of the world from a bee-bee, and etched a microscopic map on the head of a pin. Another has carved the Pietà from a tiger’s tooth. Imagine that minim of grief, fingers the width of stitches! This desire to reduce reality without loss of accuracy and clarity must be an elemental human impulse, like breasting oceans and climbing mountains. Tiny objects—especially infants, puppies and toys—actually cause the pupils to dilate. A melting warmth—the gooey heat of cuteness—suffuses the body, settling in the stomach. Muscles and tendons relax and the desire to touch and possess, to care for, swims through the limbs.
Like a roller-coaster ride, or an excess of chocolate, the Thorne rooms delighted and sickened me. So much restraint and attention to detail quickly devolve into claustrophobia, with its attendant threat of non-existence. It would be so easy to vanish into a miniature empire, the way anorexics disappear as they perfect their art.
After my visit to the rooms, I walked the banks of the Chicago River, re-inflating in the broad air. Smallness is a kind of corrective, I thought, like a homeopathic remedy. Its effectiveness depends on the dose and that day, I had overdosed.
Though I’ve collected miniature pictures frames and perfume bottles, all my life I’ve consciously resisted the urge to make my own tiny replicas. I know that smallness can add brilliance and balance, the way a diamond pendant lying in the notch of a woman’s throat shares its clarity and delicate beauty with her skin and the slight motion of her breathing. But in large doses, smallness can be poisonous. When you visit the Thorne rooms, one thing becomes manifestly clear: no tiny person will ever walk through those scaled-down doors calling your name.