It is glaring clear from my previous review that I absolutely loved Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. When I heard about her new novel, The Muse, I was over eager to demolish her next piece of work. I did briefly toy with the idea of waiting for the paperback version to be released (I own the miniaturist in paperback form and I’m vein enough with my bookshelves to want them to go together nicely), yet when I saw how absolutely stunning(!) the cover design was for the Muse, I could hold my desire in check no longer.
Burton’s second novel, The Muse, gives us the story of Odelle Bastien, a young woman Trinidadian woman, who has relocated to London. Odelle’s passion is to be a writer, yet her new life in England is far from her coveted dream. As she struggles to adapt to life in London, Odelle is offered a new job opportunity – to work as a typist for Marjorie Quick at the London Skelton Gallery. Yet her new boss is certainly not all she may initially appear to be, and Odelle is left trying to unravel the mystery of who Marjorie Quick really is. Threaded through this narrative, which takes place in London during the 60’s, is a second, though equally weighted plot line. This second story centres upon Olive Schloss, daughter of a renowned art dealer, during the 1930’s, after the family have moved to a rural village in Spain. Olive, like Odelle, harbours a creative skill which she wants to showcase to the world; her art. Whilst these two women exist within different geographical and temporal spaces, Burton links their stories together in a skillful, intriguing way.
When I first heard this book was focused upon artwork and the idea of art I did become slightly nervous. The Goldfinch is one of my favourite books, an absolute masterpiece (IMO) and I was slightly uneasy in mind about how this book would compare, or whether there would be any overlaps or comparisons. I did not need to be worried, as the books are vastly different in many ways, including plot and tone. One of the things this book does, is use a character who is an artist, as a way to explore the idea of creativity and creation. This is not solely limited to artwork, as we follow Odelle, whose creativity is used for writing both prose and poetry.The book looks at the way a piece of art can speak for itself, yet also examines the creative process itself, and how simultaneously troubling and yet freeing an experience this can be. I enjoyed the mirrored plot lines following Olive, the artist, and Odelle, the writer, and felt they complimented each other well. I particularly thought that the way Odelle admits she has had to accept that ‘I might never know the truth, but that was the secret of art’ (p. 413), was an extremely well spoken statement. There are so many great literary works, and art alike, which I would be thrilled to discover the meaning behind their creations, but that it not truly the point of the creation in the initial place. It is what it has become that counts.
Indeed, the book as a whole is extremely quotable, particularly in the questions and ideas it places behind creativity. At one point fairly early on, the narrator declares that ‘The artist as naturally male was such a widely held presupposition that Olive had come at times to believe in it herself’ (p. 62). The idea and the way history (and in some cases the present) informs us that gender and sex come into play with creativity and the ownership of art, is something I find really intriguing. It made me think of the many female authors (Charlotte Bronte etc) who were forced to hide their brilliance and creativity under male pseudonyms to be socially accepted, whilst they kept up the masquerade of fitting into the feminine ‘domestic sphere’. The fact that the structures of society also forced artists to do this was something I had not considered in depth before, so I really enjoyed this and the way Oliver believes she is unable to claim true authorship.
My initial thoughts whilst reading the first third of this novel was that in contrast to the miniaturist it has a much slower, less mysterious, and perhaps less of a plot driven focus. Despite its many accomplishments, I did not enjoy this second novel as much as I enjoyed The Miniaturist. I found myself longing slightly for the magical, mysterious, almost supernatural elements of the Miniaturist, and the first half of the novel failed to truly grip and enthrall me like I desired. I feel that in many ways, this book is perhaps trying too hard to be literary and different from Burton’s first novel, and I was conscious of this through the reading experience and the great emphasis placed on the idea of art itself.
One of the novel’s aspects which I did find extremely accomplished was the different looks at both history and culture. Having one of the main protagonists, Odelle, as a black Trinidadian woman in a very white, and quite racist (even if not obviously so) England, provided me with a new voice which I did not feel I had heard before. Although the book is by no means focused upon Odelle’s struggles due to her culture and racial minority, it certainly gave me a greater insight into what Caribbean women faced. As part of the then British West Indies, Odelle had grown up surrounded by the knowledge of British culture, yet the same cannot be said for the British themselves, who prove they really do not know anything about one of their own overseas territories. Likewise, I do not think I have ever read anything set in 1930’s Spain, and I was rather ashamedly unaware of the Spanish Civil War, and the political turmoil the country faced. Whilst history classes may teach us proudly of our British History, the same cannot truly be said about history from around the world.
My overall thoughts upon completion of Burton’s second novel is that Jessie Burton can write! She is extremely talented and does have a technique of capturing our minds with the words she writes. She is understandable, whilst still containing flairs of brilliance and sophisticated prose. I will definitely pick up anything that Jessie Burton hopefully produces in the future, and await event with eager anticipation.