‘The Muse’ by Jessie Burton tells the story of a young Trinidadian woman Odelle Bastien who lands a job as a typist at the prestigious Skelton art gallery in London in 1967, five years after she moved to the city. Odelle’s new boyfriend Lawrie has recently inherited a painting rumoured to be the work of Isaac Robles, a talented young Spanish artist who mysteriously disappeared during the Civil War in the 1930s. The painting causes quite a stir at the Skelton and Odelle’s enigmatic boss, Marjorie Quick, appears to have a personal interest in the painting as well as a professional one. Odelle sets out to uncover the true origins of the lost masterpiece whose secrets lie with the wealthy Anglo-Austrian Schloss family who employed Isaac’s sister Teresa as their housekeeper in Malaga at the beginning of the war.
I enjoyed listening to Jessie Burton’s talk at the Hay Festival last year about ‘The Miniaturist’ which was one of the most successful debut novels of 2014. More recently, she has spoken candidly about how the sudden success which followed ‘The Miniaturist’ affected both her health and her writing. There are clear parallels between Burton’s recent personal experiences and the challenges faced by aspiring poet Odelle and secretive artist Olive Schloss, yet I would never have guessed from Burton’s assured prose that ‘The Muse’ had been a struggle for her to write.
Burton’s second novel is more ambitious than her debut in that the story cleverly interweaves two very different historical eras namely the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and the experience of immigrants from the West Indies in 1960s London. The way in which she reveals the links between these dual narratives is very skilfully done and I enjoyed the contrast between the different settings. The story has an unashamedly feminist slant centred around four female main characters and as well as tackling the big themes surrounding art, identity and love, Burton also makes some smart observations concerning other aspects of the story such as the tedium of Odelle’s office work.
Unfortunately, I do have a few of the same reservations about ‘The Muse’ as I did with ‘The Miniaturist’. Firstly, some of the historical background in both parts of the story is occasionally given through dialogue between characters which can be a bit awkward and unnatural. Secondly, like Nella in ‘The Miniaturist’, Odelle is a very modern heroine for her time, sometimes too modern to be completely plausible, while Olive’s total reluctance to take credit for her own work isn’t always fully convincing either. However, these quibbles aside, ‘The Muse’ is an enjoyable and suspenseful pageturner and is more sophisticated and confident in its storytelling compared with Burton’s debut.
Many thanks to Picador for sending me a review copy via NetGalley. ‘The Muse’ is published in the UK this week.