I feel like I’m one of the only people in the world who hasn’t read Jessie Burton’s debut novel “The Miniaturist” which became a huge bestseller two years ago. It’s one of those books that I kept meaning to read, but didn’t get around to because my towering TBR pile is constantly collapsing on top of me. However, I heard Burton read from her new novel “The Muse” at a Picador event. I was immediately charmed by the humour and sly intelligence of her writing. Reading the novel confirmed for me what a great talent she has for creating a story as gripping as any Sarah Waters novel. This is an immersive story about a compelling young writer, a country on the brink of civil war and a mysterious painting.
It begins in the summer of 1967 with a woman named Odelle Bastien who is finally given an opportunity to leave her dead-end job working in a London shoe shop for a secretarial role at an institute of art. There she’s mentored by the intriguing Marjorie Quick whose “clothes were an armour made of silk.” At the same time she meets a sensitive man named Lawrie at a party. A tentative romance forms. Lawrie has recently inherited a painting and, since he’s short of cash, brings it to Odelle’s workplace to have it valued. It causes quite a stir, but there is a mystery surrounding this unusual work which Odelle is determined to solve.
The novel jumps back to 1936 where an affluent family have settled in the Andalusia region of Spain. Harold is a successful art dealer and his heiress wife Sarah is frequently in a fug due to mental health issues. Their daughter Olive is just becoming an adult, but finds herself hampered by her imposing parents. She forms a special bond with their sensitive new Spanish housekeeper Teresa and her politically-radical brother Isaac. Olive hatches a secret plan to utilize her creative talent while drawing inspiration from the man she’s fallen in love with.
This is a novel full of twists – some of which Burton lets you anticipate and others which are totally surprising – making it an immensely pleasurable page-turner. I read it over the course of a few nights staying up late to find out what happened in the next section. The novel moves back and forth between the thirty year period shedding light on the fate of different characters and keying the reader into the real story behind the creation of the rediscovered artwork.
Alongside a gripping plot, Burton gives a sensitive depiction of the increasingly terrifying political climate of Southern Europe in the mid 1930s and the perspective of a woman of colour in late 60s London. She also meaningfully explores the challenges that women face across time in both the workplace and in a male dominated art world. This reminded me strongly of Siri Hustvedt’s novel “The Blazing World” for its critique of how difficult it is for female artists to be taken serious and the way she depicts female characters cleverly outwitting the art scene. The creative challenges a writer faces are equally shown in Odelle’s burgeoning development as a poet and author of short stories. She remarks how “if you really want to see your work to completion, you have to desire it more than you’d believe. You have to fight it, fight yourself. It’s not easy.” This is an excellent description of the painful process needed to fully realize any creative endeavour.
“The Muse” is a strongly written, compelling and tremendously enjoyable read.