I received The Muse in exchange for an honest review
It’s inevitable that Jessie Burton’s new novel, The Muse, will be compared wth her smash-hit debut, The Miniaturist. And I seem to be in the minority in thinking that this novel is better than her first. It’s certainly cemented Jessie Burton as my my current favourite historical fiction writer. The Muse effortlessly brings to life other eras, cultures and life-like, three-dimensional characters, all wrapped in up luscious descriptions and a gripping plot which had me completely hooked. Not to mention, another stunner of a cover too.
We are first introduced to Trinidadian immigrant Odelle, who has moved to London in 1967 to pursue the dream of a better life. She gets off to a difficult start, but through plucky perseverance and a little help from the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, she secures a role as a typist at an art institution, where she encounters a famous, long-lost painting Rufina and the Lion by Spanish painter Isaac Rubles who died young in violent circumstances. But its history is murky, and as Odelle settles in her role preparing for a major exhibition around the painting, she becomes determined to uncover the truth about its origins.
“That painting set delayed time bombs, which carried on exploding – sometimes gently, sometimes with perturbing force – as the decades rolled on.”
Running parallel to Odelle’s story, Burton takes the reader back to 1936, to the wealthy Schoss family residing in an idyllic Spanish finca. The father, Harold is a prestigious art dealer on the look-out for the latest new talent and his daughter, Olive, is a closet artist, concealing her passion and talent for fear of not being taken seriously as a female painter.
Weaving between the two storylines and eras, Burton gradually reveals the story behind this work of art; the love, loss and secrecy. The time periods are well-researched, from the Spanish Revolution to the treatment of immigrants in 1960s London, Jessie Burton subtley weaves in these topics without ever becoming preachy or patronising. This isn’t a history book, it’s a story of culture, love, and an ode to art in all its forms. Odelle and Olive have a lot in common; they both have a talent, but both for their own reasons are reticent to share their work. Through them, the author beautifully explores art, identity and authenticity.
Burton tackles important historical time periods without ever verging into dull recounting of events; she peppers her story with romance and love without it becoming over-the-top or irrelevant to the story and she explores the history of art whilst avoiding the traps of becoming stuffy or dated. Her writing is exquisite and both of her strong female protagonists were incredibly lifelike and relatable, and I think they were a huge part of why I loved this novel so much.