After falling in love with Jessie Burton’s 2014 debut novel, The Miniaturist, I was sceptical if The Muse would live up to the high standard already set by Burton’s first book. But The Muse is certainly a strong follow-up. Once again, Jessie Burton must be praised for her extensive research. The book focuses not just on one time period, but two – the Spanish Civil War and 1960s London.
Set in the summer of 1967, the novel begins with the story of a young woman from Trinidad named Odelle Bastien, who applies for a job at the Skelton Institute art gallery in London. The Skelton’s quirky co-director, Marjorie Quick, sees Odelle’s potential and takes her under her wing. As an aspiring writer, Odelle gains her confidence through Quick, who encourages her to write more.
Following her best friend Cynthia’s wedding, Odelle meets a young man called Lawrie Scott and embarks on a faltering relationship with him. Lawrie recently inherited a striking painting of a lion and a girl holding a head, which he thinks might be worth something. After taking the painting to the Skelton, it is discovered that the masterpiece could be a long-lost painting of the short-lived Spanish artist, Isaac Robles. However, upon seeing the painting, Quick looks as if she has seen a ghost.
Although I wasn’t hooked from page one, I was immediately curious to know more about Marjorie Quick when Odelle first meets her. Her strange behaviour is intriguing, especially after meeting Lawrie and seeing the painting.
The mystery of the painting takes us back to a small village called Arazuelo in southern Spain at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Nineteen-year-old Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer and a glamorous mother, has just moved to the big house near the village with her parents. Unknown to Harold and Sarah Schloss, Olive has just turned down an offer to study at the Slade, despite her exceptional artistic talent. Whilst in Spain, Olive meets Isaac Robles – a passionate socialist and attractive artist, whom she quickly falls head-over-heels for – as well as his half-sister, Teresa, who encourages Olive’s confidence in her painting.
Burton expertly moves between the two time periods, slotting the two stories together like a jigsaw piece. The parallels between Odelle and Olive are very effective, and I became more and more invested in their stories, unable to put the book down once the two stories began to fit together. As a woman, I found Odelle and Olive are very relatable – their doubts and anxieties about their creative potential are particularly resonant, even in today’s world. We all need a Marjorie Quick to give us that push to achieve something.
The book is easy to read and the story is easy to follow. Burton really brings the characters to life, and although the dialogue between Odelle and Cynthia may be difficult to read, I think it made them more realistic and true to character. The only character I struggled to understand was Lawrie Scott, and therefore I never warmed to him. It was never quite clear what his attitude to life is; although he initially seems like an open book (telling Odelle five minutes into their first conversation that his mother had passed away), Odelle realises that he is in fact rather secretive and not at all comfortable elaborating on his mother’s past.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Muse, with it certainly living up to my expectations. Was it better than The Miniaturist? Yes and no: I warmed to Odelle and Olive much more than I did Nella in The Miniaturist, but I’m not sure if The Muse can exceed Burton’s first novel. I think the two novels are roughly equal – but in my books that is pretty good! I would definitely recommend The Muse to anyone who would like an enthralling read – the storyline is filled with twists and turns and Burton’s writing is very easy to follow.
The Muse is out now via Picador Publishers.