The Muse was undoubtedly one of my most anticipated novels for this year having been a big fan of Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist. It is a well known phrase that ‘a picture hides a thousand words’ and through The Muse Jessie Burton has proved that to be true…
‘It’s just – it feels as if there’s a place, a shining citadel of perfection I have in my mind. And with each canvas and sketchbook, I’m inching closer and closer to it, to the place where my paintings will be a better reflection of the person I am, a different reflection. And I will fly.’
This story begins in London in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, a young woman who having moved to London from Trinidad 5 years ago is still trying to find her place in the city. An opportunity arises for Odelle to leave behind her job in a shoe shop to work as a typist at the Skelton Art Institute, under the guidance of the glamorous, mysterious Marjorie Quick. Odelle is left trying to find out more about the secretive Marjorie, and her interest is piqued further when a painting arrives at the Skelton which seems to have many secrets of its own. The origin of this painting lies in 1930’s Spain and the story switches between these two time periods, following the stories of Odelle and Marjorie, and in Spain, that of Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer. I was certainly interested to find out more and as the novel progressed the full picture of the two eras begins to emerge.
‘Then the birds flew away, their names turned to kisses, a silence to spell a new world.’
I enjoyed alternating between two different periods of time and seeing the little details gradually appear to find out the truth about the painting and why it was so significant. I liked the strong, interesting female characters and the similarities between them despite coming from very different backgrounds. Both Odelle and Olive can be considered outsiders in their respective cities and they both have challenges to face. There is also a shared creativity, and it is the creation of art that is at the heart of this story – the significance of one painting and the impact that can have. The feelings it can evoke in different people, and the way it represents not only the artist, but the world around them. I was intrigued by the origins of the masterpiece which held a secret past which made for a gripping story. This coupled with the questions surrounding Marjorie Quick and whether she had something to hide resulted in there being a few surprises along the way.
‘And something deeper happened, something darker, which we have all gone through – and if we have not, it is waiting for us – the indelible moment when we realize we are alone.’
To write a novel after the phenomenal success of The Miniaturist must have been a daunting prospect, but Jessie Burton’s second novel holds a magic all of its own. Between its pages lies the story of some remarkable women. A story of love, identity, and one very special painting.