The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse Jessie Burton‘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.

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30 Comments

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30 responses to “The Muse by Jessie Burton

  1. Great review! I absolutely love this cover and the story sounds interesting. It’s going on my list!

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  2. Reblogged this on kyræviews and commented:
    This book wouldn’t have come to my attention if it wasn’t for this review, but now it has definitely been added to my summer reading list!

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  3. Thanks for the very comprehensive review 🙂 I have yet to read her other book but this seems so intriguing

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  4. I really need to read The Miniaturist. It’s been on my Nook for over a year. And now this one too!

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  5. Can’t wait to read this book. Any quibbles I had about The Miniaturist I put aside because I found the writing wonderful.

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  6. I never did get around to reading The Miniaturist, interesting that she may have used some of her personal experience as inspiration, thanks for the links. The double-edged sword of success, even in talking about her anxiety, she creates great imagery “Concrete triumphs, achieved through mist and smoke;”

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  7. Nice review. This makes the second time I’m hearing of this book and from what you’ve said, it sounds like something I’d like.

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  8. What a lovely cover. I do, however, have a problem with modern heroines in historically based works (I had that issue with Girl With A Pearl Earring) so I’m glad you mentioned that aspect!

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  9. Oh no! I wish she’d learned something from the comments I’ve heard in so many places about her heroines’ out-of-their-time behaviours. I wonder whether authors ever hear about that sort of criticism, or whether they ignore it? Anyway, I know I won’t be able to read this now because of it, and that’s such a shame as it sounds good in other ways.

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  10. This sounds kind of good!! I’m putting it on my TBR list!

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  11. This is such a great review! I’ve been so curious about this book! It totally sounds like something I’m going to love but thanks for the heads up about the modernity of the heroine. That was totally a reservation I had about The Miniaturist as well. I didn’t know what Burton struggled to write this follow up but it makes total sense when you think about how massive her debut was!

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    • Yes I can see that Burton is putting across her point by creating female characters who aren’t weak and passive but if the character is based in a very specific historical context then it can sometimes raise questions about plausibility. I really admire her courage for speaking out about anxiety though.

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  12. I listened to ‘The Miniaturist’ when it was the BBC’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ and I liked it, but not enough to actually want to read it again for myself. Thank you for this post because I’m always tempted by massively popular authors, but your balanced review has made me suspect I should hold fire on this one …

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  13. Great review! I’m really glad that someone else has a positive opinion because a lot of the reviews I’ve read have tended to be quite negative. I much preferred The Muse to The Miniaturist.

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  14. Looking forward to reading this, it is interesting how many books recently have centred round the identity of a painting, going right back to The Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Goldfinch, How to be both, The Improbability of Love, there is another but I have forgotten the title – all of them are fascinating in a different way.

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  15. Not to mention The Portrait of Dorian Grey, of course!

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  16. OH i Loved the Miniaturist it was amazing!!!
    I must give this book a try, thanks for the review and info 😀 😀

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  17. Pingback: Wishes for My TBR Pile #17: All the Books | Zezee with Books

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