I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I must confess a shallow part of me couldn’t wait to read The Muse by Jessie Burton because it’s just so pretty! Although I haven’t read Jessie Burton’s international bestselling debut, The Miniaturist, I’ve only heard positive things about it so I knew I was in safe hands.
A dual narrative alternating between late 1960’s London and rural Spain on the brink of Civil War, The Muse follows two creative, gifted women, separated by time but linked by a long-lost painting riddled with secrets.
First, in 1967 we are introduced to educated Trinidadian immigrant and aspiring writer Odelle Bastien who’s struggled to find her place in London since she arrived five years ago. Fed up with working in a shoe shop, Odelle applies for a job as a typist at the Skelton Gallery in London for the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. After offering her the role, Quick takes Odelle under her wing and encourages her to pursue her lifelong dream of writing.
When Odelle meets Lawrie Scott at her best friend’s wedding, he asks her to look at a painting his mother left him in his will. Odelle takes the painting to the Skelton and learns that it’s a lost masterpiece thought to be by the Spanish painter Isaac Robles, who died in mysterious circumstances, but Quick isn’t so convinced. Determined to discover its origins, Odelle makes it her mission to uncover the truth, not only about the painting but also Marjorie Quick.
The story behind the painting lies in 1936 in the impoverished rural village of Arazuelo on the Southern coast of Spain, where 19 year old Olive Schloss and her parents have moved into large villa. Daughter of a renowned Viennese art dealer Harold Schloss, Olive harbours her own artistic ambitions but paints in secret to avoid her father’s scrutiny and beliefs that women aren’t capable of being great artists.
Olive only confides in Isaac and his half-sister Teresa Robles who she grows close to after they turn up at the finca looking to help the family with house-work and gardening. With the onset of Civil War looming, together they help conceal her art by spinning a complex web of secrets, but not without explosive and devastating consequences, which echo into the decades to come.
Despite living in different times and in different countries, there are many similarities between Odelle and Olive. Odelle is an immigrant in London and Olive is a foreigner in Spain. Both women are creative, Odelle likes writing and Olive painting. They both do what they can to conceal their talents but both have their work exposed to the world without their consent. It’s these parallels which highlight the challenges faced by minorities in 60’s Britain and female artists in the early twentieth century.
The backdrops of 60’s London and rural Spain on the brink of civil strife are strikingly portrayed through Jessie Burton’s rich, rhythmic prose. The Muse is evidently very well researched and poignantly captures the sense of political, artistic and racial unrest that surfaced during those times. A haunting, suspenseful tale of aspiration, identity, deception and love, The Muse is worth reading for its cast of well-developed, strong female characters alone, especially Odelle, Olive and Marjorie Quick.
Although slightly slow-paced to begin with the narrative is filled with surprises and Jessie Burton keeps you wondering and questioning everything, from what happened to Isaac Robles to whether Marjorie Quick is who she says she is, until the end.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words and the painting in The Muse tells a whole novel’s worth. Rendered in exquisite detail The Muse is as intriguing as the lost masterpiece itself and I’m looking forward to reading Jessie Burton’s first book, The Miniaturist. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve read The Muse by Jessie Burton, I’d love to hear what you think of it.