Note: I went to go and see Jessie Burton speak about The Muse at an event at Foyles, which I mention periodically in the review.
SPOILER WARNING: This review is spoiler free.
After the huge success of her debut novel The Miniaturist in 2014, expectations were high for Jessie Burton’s second novel The Muse, which triumphantly avoids the dreaded sophomore slump. After delivering a tense and rich depiction of 17th century Amsterdam in her debut, Burton is even more ambitious with The Muse, as it jumps between two different and distinct time frames; 1930’s Spain in the lead up to the civil war, and 1960’s London. Through her use of wonderfully vivid, lyrical language, truly intriguing characters and a cleverly woven mystery that will keep you guessing until the end, this fictional study of creativity, deception and identity truly paints a picture that you will never forget.
The novel opens on the streets of London in 1967, where our protagonist Odelle Bastien, who moved to London from Trinidad five years ago, is working in a shoe shop but dreams of being a writer. After gaining a coveted position as a typist at the Skelton Art Institution, Odelle meets the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, a woman who takes Odelle under her wing and encourages her creative aspirations. When Odelle meets Lawrie, a man who is in possession of a beautifully striking painting, she is drawn into a mystery which transports the reader to 1936 Spain, and a young woman named Olive Schloss. Olive has just moved to a village in southern Spain, with her authoritative art-dealer father Harold and radiant but troubled mother Sarah. Olive is a talented artist who has been accepted into the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, but feels listless and lost in her own life. When radical socialist and artist Isaac Robles and his younger sister Teresa comes into Olive’s life, she starts to see things in more vibrant colours than ever before, and begins spinning a web of lies that tears apart not only herself, but everyone she loves, in the process. As the civil unrest in Spain builds, so does the tension in Olive’s life, as she must determine who she can trust and who is only out to help themselves. These two threads interweave seamlessly throughout the novel, twisting and turning until the very last page, leaving the reader musing (aaaay title reference) on the almost indescribable ways in which art in its many forms can control, exhilarate and encompass a person’s life.
The Mystery – Jessie Burton’s slow burning style of writing a mystery, filled with deception that is ever so delicately revealed, with clues and red herrings scattered expertly throughout, is something I’ve quickly grown to love. It’s well crafted, well paced, and the two timelines allow her to hint at or reveal a juicy new piece of information before jumping backwards of forwards in time. This leaves the reader in torment as they are pulled away from the excitement at the most crucial point, making them read on at an ever increasing rate. Burton admitted to loving how she decided to structure this novel, having two time-frames to jump between for this exact reason – to lovingly torture her readers!
The Diversity – Not only does The Muse have four prominent, powerful, and at times flawed and extremely intriguing female protagonists, it was also incredibly refreshing to have one of them be a woman of colour who does suffer from the racism and prejudice that was highly prevalent at the time, but whose race isn’t the entire crux and central point of the narrative. Not to choose favourites, buuuuut Odelle is my favourite of the four by far. (Whoops.) An intelligent, curious daydreamer who is initially afraid to share her creative work with the world, but grows more confident with each passing day. She slowly forges her own path in England, a space where she doesn’t always feel welcome but eventually becomes her new home. The Muse has an extensive bibliography, showing the amount of research that went into ensuring that Odelle’s ethnic background is represented accurately, and Burton also spoke about how she contacted numerous professors in London the West Indies to ensure that the patois language Odelle uses is true not only of her Trinidadian background, but also of the 1960’s time period.
The Creativity – One of the main threads that runs throughout the novel is creativity. Be it literary in Odelle’s case, or painting in Olive’s, both share this fear that by publicising and sharing their art with the world, people’s comments will warp how they view their work, and themselves. They feel as many creative people do; completely and inextricably linked to the art they have made, a feeling that is both exhilarating and slightly terrifying. Burton admitted that this topic was inspired by her own shifting emotions after the amazing success of The Miniaturist, and how she felt having to tour around the world promoting her first novel whilst simultaneously struggling to write her second. Expectations were so high that people’s perceptions of her and her work hugely affected the writing process and her mental health, as she found it hard to shut out the world and focus on the task at hand without losing herself in the process. Burton’s blog post goes into this topic in a lot more depth, and is a great read for anyone and everyone, especially those who feels a strong personal connection to the work they create, and how this feeling affects your perception of yourself.
Wrap it up
To cut a long story (and review) short, I adored this book. Everything from the multiple settings to the language to the vividly drawn characters was picture perfect. While I did question some of the character’s motivations and actions, at times opposing their choices completely, I always enjoy how Burton writes a person’s flaws; without glossing over the parts that are the most unlikable or polarising. Jessie Burton is an immense talent, and with absolutely ZERO PRESSURE, I can’t wait to see what she does next (and I hope the writing process is much more calming and less stressful than the last. With no deadlines!)
Rating: 4 1/2 stars
Featured Image: Detail from the cover of The Muse, illustrated by Lisa Perrin