I just finished listening to the audiobook of The Muse by Jessie Burton, and thought I’d do a little (read: long) review. Read on, my friends…
TL;DR it’s an interesting culture clash between a Trinidadian girl in Sixties London and an English girl in Thirties rural Spain. Key themes include art, war, love and death.
I bought The Muse in the Audible sale after Christmas. It was 99p and had good reviews on Goodreads, so I thought I’d give it a chance. I’d never read any Jessie Burton previously, but I’d heard a lot of buzz around The Miniaturist and The Muse.
The Muse is a Sunday Times Number One Bestseller, and The Miniaturist is a million-copy selling bestseller too, so I knew I was in good hands.
Split between two POVs and two very different settings, the novel focuses on Odelle, a woman in her mid-twenties from Trinidad who has been living in London for the past five years, working in a shoe shop and sharing a flat with her best friend Cynthia. Cynth is now getting married and moving in with her new husband, leaving Odelle alone.
Odelle dreams of being a writer, so when she is invited for a week’s trial as a typist at the Skelton art gallery she jumps at the chance. There she meets the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, co-director of the gallery and a woman with many secrets. She immediately takes Odelle under her wing, encouraging her writing aspirations and taking her into her confidence.
“I thought I deserved them, the sort of people you found only in novels. Quick.”
Odelle meets a boy at Cynth’s wedding whose mother has recently passed away leaving him a painting. This painting leads us into the second part of the story – Arazuelo, a small rural village in Spain, not far from Malaga, on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War.
Harold Schloss, an Austrian art dealer, Sarah, his beautiful English wife who suffers from depression, and Olive, their artistic and naive daughter, are renting a finca on the outskirts of the village. On their arrival, the mysterious Isaac and Teresa Robles turn up, ostensibly to work at the finca as groundskeeper and maid. Isaac is also an aspiring artist, and an active Republican.
‘Smiles in ballrooms, weeps in bedrooms. Ill in her head.’ Olive tapped her temple. ‘And here.’ She touched her heart.”
Nineteen-year-old Olive has been accepted to a prestigious art school in London, unbeknown to her parents, who don’t seem to recognise her talent or worth.
She instantly falls for the exotic and distant Isaac, using him as inspiration to paint some of her best works (I believe he is the eponymous muse). When Sarah commissions Isaac to paint a portrait of her as a gift for Harold, Olive insists on being in the painting too, jumping at the chance to spend more time with Isaac.
I won’t say any more about the plot, for fear of completely spoiling you! Suffice it to say, the origins of the painting and how the events of 1936 effect the story in 1967 are revealed to devastating effect.
There is a strong theme of foreignness that permeates the whole book – Odelle is constantly seen as foreign by strangers who comment on her ‘good English’ because of her accent and the colour of her skin. Harold, Olive’s father, left Austria because of the First World War, and the Schlosses emigrate to Spain in search of a more peaceful, relaxing way of life as a balm for Sarah’s mental health issues. Having listened to the audiobook on Audible, the various accents and voices used by Cathy Tyson really brought the book to life, possibly emphasising the different languages and cultures, especially when Odelle and Cynthia speak to each other in their distinctive Caribbean patois.
The book also has strong feminist undertones. It’s clear that Olive is expected to marry like her peers back in England, and that being an artist is not considered a suitable life for a girl. In fact, Harold all but says out loud that women are not as talented or creative as men. Olive is defiant, but in a quiet, subtle way. She doesn’t want to leave her family, so she ignores the letter from Slade School of Fine Art, following her passion in secret by painting in her bedroom when everyone is asleep. Her works are considered far superior to Isaac’s, and she is humble and modest, uninterested in money or fame.
“As far as Olive saw it, this connection of masculinity with creativity had been conjured from the air and been enforced, legitimised and monetised by enough people for whom such a state of affairs was convenient … ”
Sarah and Marjorie are both stylish, modern women, wearing trousers and having their own money and careers in a time when women had less freedoms than today. Odelle is a brave, independent woman – moving across the world to England in search of opportunity.
Other themes that are woven through the book include war – Odelle’s father was in the RAF and died in the Second World War, Harold was displaced from Austria by the First World War, and the devastating events of the Spanish Civil War are seen in fine detail in the book. Love vs. infatuation also features, as well as death.
I enjoyed The Muse, it took a while to get into but once the story got going I was intrigued and wanted to keep listening. There was one particular twist towards the end that had me saying ‘Oh my God!’ out loud.
The backdrop of the civil unrest in Spain in the Thirties, with the hindsight of the war to come, gave the sections set in Arazuelo a real sense of urgency and tension. The mystery of how Marjorie Quick ties into the whole story of the painting kept me hooked until the very end.
I’m giving The Muse 3 stars, it’s not my usual genre or taste, but I definitely enjoyed it. I wasn’t as fully absorbed as I’d hoped, but the narrative that Burton has created is detailed and layered, and she has clearly researched her settings thoroughly.
I found the ending slightly frustrating. Whilst most of our questions are answered, not all of them are and Burton even has Odelle address these, expressing her own frustration that she couldn’t get to the bottom of it all. I know this is more realistic than getting an explanation for every little thing, but it left me feeling every so slightly unsatisfied.
I’m never quite sure what can act as a trigger so I’ll stick to the main ones, and if anyone can educate me in the comments it would be appreciated!
There are a few instances of suicide in the book, linked to depression and mental health issues, as well as terminal illness. They are briefly mentioned in passing rather than described in detail. There is also a lengthy scene of torture, more mental than physical, which is quite harrowing.
Take care, readers!
Have you read The Muse? Let me know what you thought in the comments!
Have you read The Miniaturist? Would you recommend it?