To say I enjoyed this book would be a vast understatement, I LOVED it. How many times have you seen a picture in a gallery and wondered just what the message is and how the artist constructed it all? In The Muse this is so cleverly explored.
Although the story in itself is compelling, what really sold it for me is Jessie Burtons writing. I read her other novel The Miniaturist last year, and read it in a matter of days, and my experience with The Muse was quite similar. At any available opportunity, I would find myself reading it and getting lost in the mystery and intricacy of this little world Burton wove together.
A picture hides a thousand words . . .
On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick.
But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.
The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .
There are so many reasons why I enjoyed this novel, but if I went into detail on all of these the way I want to, this review would be ridiculously long so let me break it down for you guys!
Writing style: It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Burtons writing style. I find it to be so easy to follow but also deeply poetic and quick witted. There’s a natural flow and flair in whatever Burton writes and especially in this novel with the dual timelines, it’s so well maintained.
Dual timelines: The novel is divided into two timelines 1967 and 1936 – in 1967 we follow the plucky Odelle Bastien, a young woman who has emigrated from Trinidad and found a new home amidst the hustle and bustle of 60’s London. The other timeline set in 1936 follows aspiring artist Olive Schloss and her family as they settle in rural Spain and the people and events which forever alter their lives…
Story telling / Structure: The way the story unravels is so unique and intriguing. In the 1967 section of the novel the characters find a beguiling painting but don’t have any backstory and it proves to be utterly mysterious to them. In the 1936 section of the novel however, we learn about the story behind the painting and how it came to be. I loved that the story was structured this way as there’s some serious dramatic irony and it indicates how subjective art can be and how the message can change over time.
As an image it was simple and at the same time not easily decipherable—a girl, holding another girl’s severed head in her hands on one side of the painting, and on the other, a lion, sitting on his haunches, not yet springing for the kill. It had the air of a fable.
Focus on female characters: I found it so fitting that both the timelines are told from the perspective of female characters; Odelle and Olive. There’s a satisfying symmetry there as they are both artists – Odelle is a talented writer while Olive is a brilliant painter – and are restricted from pursuing their passions in different ways. Odelle suffers discrimination due to her race and gender while Olive is similarly hemmed in due to her gender. In a time where male artists dominated the arena, she believes nobody of importance will take her seriously.
One point of contention: the depiction of the male characters in the novel, I don’t know if this is a recurring thing but Burton seems to be better at exploring female characters. The male characters, in this book were kind of flat for me and I wasn’t really interested in them. I also didn’t understand their motivations or actions but perhaps this is intentional?
Until next time,