Book review: Jessie Burton’s The Muse charms on the timeless power of art
Jessie Burton’s follow-up to her phenomenally successful debut novel, The Miniaturist (which sold more than a million copies across 30 countries), takes place in Spain in the 1930s and in London in the 1960s.
Although these narratives initially appear to be discrete, they are united figuratively by certain thematic preoccupations concerning the redemptive and connecting power of art, the quest for and the assertion of individual identity, the place of women in a savagely unequal world, and literally by the presence of a mysterious painting that turns up at a London art gallery in 1967. Its provenance lies in Spain in the 1930s.
The 1960s strand of the narrative of The Muse focuses on the figure of Odelle Bastien. When we encounter her at the start of the novel, she has been living in London for five years (she was previously a resident of Trinidad), searching for a way to feel at home and find work, in a bewildering and alien land.
Finally offered a position as a typist in an art gallery that is managed by the enigmatic and beguiling Marjorie Quick, she finds that her new life furnishes her with a measure of security and a sense of unrecognised potential, but also with a sense of uncertainty and mystery.
This feeling is intensified when the gallery in which she works takes receipt of a strange painting, a lost masterpiece with an apparently occluded provenance.
The 1930s strand, which runs in parallel to that which takes place in the 1960s, concerns the figure of Olive Schloss, who, originally from Vienna, has settled with her father in a mansion house in an idyllic area of rural Spain and is haunted (like Odelle) by the spectre of unrealised ambitions: she longs to be an artist, but her misogynistic and brutally patriarchal father, who is also a successful art dealer, does all that he can to extinguish her hopes of success. Olive’s existence is quiet and thwarted, until one day Isaac and Teresa Robles come to work at her home. Isaac and Teresa are half-siblings, yet where Isaac is a passionate revolutionary and committed artist, Teresa is a maid who feels lost and alone in the world.
The success of novels such as this depends on the elegance with which the writer is able to make discrete narrative strands function compellingly in their own right, resonate with one another and eventually intersect, and for the most part Burton does this well.
Each portion of her story is carefully and entertainingly patterned and possessed of propulsive narrative force, and the interweaving of narrative threads – when it comes – is inventive, intricate, surprising and attentively handled (though some readers might feel the novel’s resolution a little too neat).
Burton is also adept at generating atmosphere and a sense of place (both Spain and London are vividly realised), and she brings to her characters’ lives a degree of commitment, imaginative compassion and detail that brings them palpably and affectingly to life. Olive and Odelle in particular feel fully faceted, carefully imagined, memorable.
These qualities are not apparent everywhere in the book. Burton’s prose can be inattentive (characters are sometimes ascribed inert phrases such as “grinning like an idiot”), and the tone of the book can sometimes be cloying.
These infelicities diminish the sense of care and particularity she has worked hard to bring to the novel elsewhere, but on finishing the book you will find that – appropriately, for a work about the enduring power of art – it is the strength of Burton’s achievements that remain.
Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.