Published: 28th June 2016
Started reading: August 19
Finished reading: August 29
Trigger warnings: Racism, sexual content
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 . . .
This was an utterly magnificent literary journey. A novel of remarkable complexity and acute symbolism, The Muse consumed me with its profoundly intelligent narrative, dual timelines, and an intricately woven, compelling plot. During each sitting, I was swept away into the depths of its pages.
I loved Jessie Burton’s slightly more well-known debut, The Miniaturist, which I read in 2018. This is similarly teeming with imagination and ideas, as it depicts two separate time periods within the twentieth century with meticulous detail. Through the writing, it is clear that a massive amount of research went into this book, embellishing its level of power and authenticity.
The story begins in 1967, when aspiring Trinidadian writer Odelle Bastian is given a job as a typist at the Skelton Art Gallery in London, and the dynamics of her life soon change. She works under the guidance of the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, and meets a young man called Lawrie Scott, who as well as pursuing a relationship with Odelle, presents an outstanding artwork to the Skelton, which has a very mysterious past.
We then go back to 1936, when the painting originates. Budding artist Olive Schloss and her family have recently moved to the rural South of Spain, where political tensions are escalating ahead of the Spanish Civil War. There, they meet painter and activist Isaac Robles, whose sister Teresa becomes their maid. Interesting, fateful relationships soon develop with both extraordinary and tragic results.
At the very heart of the book is Rufina and the Lion, the elusive artwork that provides the one immediately tangible link between the two storylines. It was clear from an early stage that they were inextricably connected, but in a complex and smartly concealed way that ensures the whole truth is not revealed until towards the very end.
Though they were connected, the two timelines contrasted hugely from each other. They took place in different settings, contained different characters, and were told in separate narratives. It gives the book an added layer of depth, and helps to make the plot considerably more fascinating. The pace is maybe a little slow to begin with, but as I read on, I became more heavily invested.
There are multiple themes explored throughout, some of which are echoed in both timelines. They present a number of thought-provoking questions and sensitive topics, which perhaps offer a small insight into Burton’s approach to writing. Accordingly, there were several passages that carried immense meaning.
The book comprises an array of superbly developed characters. The 1967 storyline is told from the first person point of view of Odelle, in the form of a reflective account which is brilliantly written. I liked Odelle a lot and really connected with her, and through her eyes an added sense of intrigue is brought to the story regarding the history of the painting.
All the characters in the 1936 timeline were memorable and multi-faceted. I was especially gripped by the relationship between Olive and Teresa, which went in unexpected directions, often in the wake of Isaac’s looming shadow of prestige.
One of things I enjoyed most about the book was the descriptions of art and how it plays such a central role in the plot. It was vivid and detailed and brought to the page with subtlety. The same can be said about the two immersive primary settings. Indeed, the writing on the whole is masterful. Almost every sentence; every word of dialogue, is expertly judged.
Overall, I can find very few reasons to fault this book. It is not a fast read, but it never ceased to hold my absolute attention once both storylines are fully established, and it is the kind of book where you really do have to pay attention! The perfect mix of compelling and complex; I loved it.
A whirlwind of a book that just totally consumed me. Brilliantly written, and confirmation if I needed it that Jessie Burton is one of my absolute favourite authors.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐