The term ‘difficult second novel’ seems a cliche now, rather than something to be overcome. I for one would have readily forgiven Jessie Burton if she hadn’t delivered a book as breathtaking as The Miniaturist, an outstanding and ambitious novel, only disappointing for not having ‘Miniaturist 2’ hot on its heels. Luckily, we have nothing to fear.
The Muse opens in London 1967 with Odelle Bastien, who has lived in London for five years after travelling over from Trinidad. Like many children of the colonies, she had been taught that it was her Motherland, and was where the opportunities lie. Odelle dreams of being a writer, inspired by the BBC’s ‘Colonial Voices’ but her writing has been put on hold and she sells shoes in Dolcis. All of this changes when she applies for a typist role at the Skelton Gallery – not only is she paid more, but the undemanding job gives her plenty of time to write in the afternoons. The job also introduces her to the mysterious Marjorie Quick, her boss.
Odelle is a prickly character – an obvious result of struggling to find her place in London, where she faces racism, both overt and covert. But she is also passionate, and Quick clearly sees something in her that she is determined to unlock. Everything changes when Lawrie, who Odelle had met at her friend’s wedding tracks her down at the Skelton – partially to invite her out, and partially to have a painting he has recently inherited valued. The painting turns out to be a lost masterpiece by a hugely talented Spanish artist who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War. Based on Quick’s reaction, Odelle senses that there is more to this story – but Quick is intent on keeping her distance.
The narrative then takes us to 1936 in Southern Spain. Olive Schloss and her parents have moved to Arazuelo. Olive is an artist of evident talent who has just been offered a place at the Slade – but her father, an art dealer seems to have institutionalised the idea in her that women can never be artists. Olive knows with certainty that her paintings will never be taken seriously. Into their lives come half-siblings Isaac and Teresa Robles, for reasons that remain ambiguous and with explosive consequences. The result of this is the painting that Odelle puzzles over thirty years later. The mystery is unraveled tantalisingly, heartbreakingly, but ultimately satisfyingly.
As I said previously, in my opinion, The Muse easily lives up to its hype. It’s beautifully crafted, emotionally compelling, huge ambitious – but also a serious page-turner. Odelle is a terrific first person narrator. She is not without her foibles – stubborn, proud, but also vulnerable and still trying to find her place in the world, in contrast to her friend Cynth, who works with her in the shoe shop – but loves the job and seems utterly happy in her her own skin. Odelle seems determined not to wear her education lightly – dropping literary references in, even in moments of tension – ‘her centre could not hold.’ She is frustrated by her white acquaintances’ determination to dismiss the racism she suffers and initially struggles to express herself honestly at the start of the novel.
The Spanish sections of the narrative are just as, if not even more engaging. Odelle is no cypher, whose purpose is purely to uncover the mystery behind the painting – but the intrigue, and the sense of dread that builds in the bucolic paradise inhabited by the Schlosses and the Robles, and the feeling of history is hugely compelling – and with far more emotional.
Jessie Burton has written, and spoken, very eloquently and movingly about her experience of suffering from severe anxiety after the publication of The Miniaturist. Consequently, the artist’s experience is a clear theme throughout the book: the feeling of desperately wanting approval, whilst not wanting to put oneself out there. The fear of vulnerability comes through very strongly: the characters put up fronts, hide behind others because they fear criticism, or feel that they personally are an unacceptable face for art. And then art can be reinterpreted, re written, misunderstood. At one point, Odelle mentions a Times piece which reinterprets the painting as a political allegory – with the knowledge we have from the story, we can chuckle at this idea, but it’s also a touching and thought-provoking take on the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, how the horror was internalised and tucked away: ‘Murderers still live ear their victims’ families, and between neighbour and neighbour twenty ghosts trudge the village road. Sorrow has seeped into the soil, and the trauma of survivors is revealed only by their acts of concealment.’
I hope nobody will be put off reading The Muse by the hype surrounding it – this is a remarkable story of love, authenticity, betrayal and ownership. Tense, human and exhilarating, this book deserves to be very widely read whilst we await ‘Miniaturist 2’ (I’m sure they’ll come up with a better title).
The Muse by Jessie Burton is published 30th June by Picador