In her follow-up to her acclaimed novel The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton adopts a dual timeline structure, following the lives of two creatively gifted women separated by time and place, but linked by a luminous, long-hidden painting that bodes well to take the art world by storm, and a decades-old mystery about the artist. The Muse (2016) lacks the subtle element of magical realism that lent a mysterious aura to the dollhouse and the titular miniaturist who furnished it in her debut novel, but there are other compelling mysteries and themes that drive the plot of The Muse and knit together its two timelines.
In 1967 London, Odelle Bastien, an educated Trinidadian immigrant who has lived in England for the past five years, is working in a shop selling shoes. London hasn’t turned out to be quite the promised land it once seemed to the younger Odelle: job opportunities always seem to evaporate when she meets employers face to face. Her last shoe sale is to a woman who has no toes on her feet ― a portentous moment that sticks with Odelle, and eventually makes its way into a short story that she publishes. Odelle is an accomplished poet and author, but struggles with her writing and with allowing others to see it. She’s delighted to finally get a better job as a typist for an art gallery, bringing her closer to the world of art and culture that she loves. One night she meets Lawrie Scott, who shows her a painting he’s inherited from his mother that he has in the boot (trunk) of his car. When Lawrie tracks down Odelle later at her job, he brings the painting into the gallery, where it causes a sensation.
In 1936 Spain, in the impoverished rural village of Arazuelo on the southern coast of Spain, Olive Schloss, a nineteen year old artist, lives in a rented villa with her expatriate parents. Her father is a Viennese art dealer who doesn’t believe women can be true artists, and is totally unaware of his daughter’s talent. Olive hides her artwork, along with her invitation to study art at a London art school. Either from uncertainty or a feeling that her artistic future lies elsewhere, Olive never responds to the art school. Her decision to stay is solidified when she meets Isaac Robles, an art teacher and revolutionary, and his young sister Teresa. Olive befriends Teresa and falls in love with Isaac, who inspires her to paint greater art than Olive has ever created before. Isaac’s minor talent at painting, Teresa’s desire to have Olive become known for her art, and Olive’s compulsion to keep it secret, collide, with unexpected consequences for all three of them.
Burton chooses two unusual cultures for her settings: 1960’s London, from the viewpoint of a Caribbean immigrant, and pre-Civil War Spain in 1936, also seen from an outsider’s point of view. Burton’s research is impressive, particularly with the Spanish part of the story. It adds a lot of color to the story, though it does occasionally bog down the pace. The Muse touches on social issues in both eras: the divisions in Spain that led to the civil war, as well as the more subtle racism that limits Odelle’s opportunities in London and make her grateful to get a job as a typist.
The characters in The Muse are deeply flawed but engaging. Odelle’s prickly exterior hides uncertainty about her talent and her place in London society. She speaks faultlessly proper English to everyone except her best friend Cynth, when she switches to a Trinidadian patois, and it’s never clear which Odelle views as the truer reflection of her inner self. Odelle is attracted to Lawrie but pushes him away at the same time, for reasons that are never entirely clear even to Odelle (let alone the reader). Olive has similarly troubled personal relationships with her parents and with Isaac, who slips into a love affair with her mostly because of the strength of Olive’s infatuation with him, a tenuous basis for a relationship that is shaken even further by the deception Olive insists on relating to her artwork.
Like The Miniaturist, The Muse has a work of art as its centerpiece, but in this book the relationship of the characters to the painting and to art generally is much more the focus of the plot. Jessie Burton’s blog talks about her internal struggles with her relationship to her own written art in the aftermath of the unexpected international success of The Miniaturist, and The Muse reflects some of those thoughts and concerns. The female protagonists both struggle with their creativity, each hiding it from public view to one degree or another. The painting that the plot revolves around echoes the theme of a woman suffering because of her art. Even Odelle’s initial experience with the toeless woman resonates and later resurfaces in literary form.
But her presence does seem a macabre end to that chapter of my life. Did she see in me a kindred vulnerability? Did she and I occupy a space where our only option was to fill the gap with paper?
The Muse is a little slower-paced and may not resonate with all readers, but I found it a meaningful story with an appealing cast of characters and intriguing settings that complemented the plot. Olive’s artwork is so vividly described that it felt real to me, like I was seeing it in my mind’s eye. The Muse is similar in structure and feel to a Kate Morton dual timeline mystery like The Forgotten Garden or The Secret Keeper (complete with some romance and a twist), and will appeal to readers who like that type of a story, but it’s more ambitious in its concept and scope, and doesn’t go for the easy resolution. It’s a rewarding read.