Book Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

Book - The Muse by Jessie BurtonAfter reading Burton’s debut novel (The Miniaturist) I was expecting more of the same, but The Muse is quite different, both in style and theme. It is much more exciting and multi-layered, spanning two different time periods and focusing on the origins of an unusual painting. The book begins in 1960s London, where we meet the young aspiring writer Odelle Bastien, who moved to London five years ago from the West Indies. She is thrilled when she eventually lands a job as typist for the Skelton Art Gallery, working for the stylish Miss Quick.   

The story continues as Odelle’s friend Cynth gets married and moves out, leaving her lonely and frustrated. Things seem too good to be true when she meets the charming Lawrie Scott. He is still grieving for his recently deceased mother, but frustrated that all she left him was a strange painting. Lawrie seeks advice from Mr Reede, Director of the Skelton, and Odelle can tell there is something odd going on, something hidden, but she can’t quite put her finger on it.

Meanwhile, we are transported back to rural Spain in the 1930s, where Olive Schloss is fed up of living with her parents. Overlooked by her father (an art dealer) who seems unable to see that his daughter has artistic talent, and ignored by her beautiful yet depressed mother, she soon forms a friendship with locals Isaac (painter and political activist) and his sister Teresa (who ends up as their servant).

What I particularly love about this novel is the strong narrative voice – Odelle is reflecting on what happened as she tells the story, and you can guess that it must have been highly significant, and that the mysterious Miss Quick has something to do with it, but it’s not until the very end that the secrets begin to unravel.

It’s also strange to see how two periods of time can be so entirely different – pre-war and post-war, with only 31 years between them, yet we can see the universal stereotypes at play, as Olive Schloss struggles with her father’s view of women, whilst Odelle encounters racism as a young West Indian woman in London.

There are some interesting and unexpected reversals here too, but nothing I can mention without revealing too much! It’s interesting to see how Odelle deals with racism in 1960s London, quietly choosing to persevere in the face of ignorance, whilst Lawrie is somewhat naïve in his understanding of these things. And the character of Olive is fascinating; she is burdened by her mother’s illness and desperate to prove herself and escape the confines of family life, yet she is also overprotected and stubborn, unaware of how her actions might impact on the lives of others.

At the centre of the book there lies a question – can an artist or a writer ever be truly separated from their work? And does that matter? Olive seeks recognition for her artwork, but not through conventional means, whilst Odelle struggles with a simultaneous fear of and desire for publication.

This is a complex and gripping novel, covering many interesting themes, and at its heart lies the age-old question of whether men and women can ever be treated equally. The characters are believable and the suspense is just right, keeping you guessing until the very end. There is love and companionship, heartache and sorrow – everything you need for a historical novel.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

  1. Soon after reading your review a friend recommended it to me. It has now shot to the top of my waiting list.
    Thanks for your thoughtful reviews.

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