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Thursday, 25 August 2016

Review: The Muse, Jessie Burton

The Muse is the second novel from the bestselling author of The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton. Where do you go after such a smash hit of a debut novel? Burton more than rises to the challenge and produces another novel steeped in history, rich characterisation and settings abundant in detailed description.

We begin with Odelle in June 1967, an immigrant from Trinidad. These days it might as well be 1967 with the feelings that the word 'immigrant' may evoke, and the London that Odelle is promised is not the London she finds, at least at first. Despite her prestigious qualifications, she finds many doors closed and works in a shoe shop with her friend Cynthia, until one day a woman named Marjorie Quick employs her as a typist in the Skelton gallery. Finally, Odelle thinks she's getting somewhere.

However, ill - sort of - circumstances strike again when Cynth gets married, moves out, and Odelle finds herself lonely again. A man with a painting turns up and promises excitement and mystery, not least with Marjorie's reaction to seeing the painting.

We are soon transported to 1936, Spain, and meet the Schloss family. There is Harold, an art dealer, Sarah, a glamorous woman missing society and suffering with depression, and their daughter, Olive, a closet artist, whose dilemma is whether or not to accept an offer to study Fine Art in London.

Into their lives arrive Isaac and Teresa Robles, and although their arrival is met with joy and gratitude, danger follows in their wake. For Olive is inspired to paint like never before, paintings full of complexities and substance, though they are never credited to her. The backdrop of this story is the revolution in Spain, to-ing and fro-ing between the left and the right, with the innocents, as ever, taking the fall for the ambitions of a few powerful men.

Therein, the story flits between 1936 and 1967, with Odelle getting closer and closer to discovering the story of the painting, and the mystery of Marjorie, though not without battling her own demons in terms of her relationship with her writing. She says, "My writing became the axis upon which all my identity and happiness hinged" and it's interesting to wonder how much of this came from Burton's own feelings.

Burton combines substantial research, complex characterisation and a flair for scene setting that makes The Muse a novel to truly immerse yourself in. From visualising yourself in Olive's stool as she pours herself into her paintings, to tense conversations with Teresa and Isaac about the state of Spain, and walking around late 60s London, The Muse gives you a rich depth of experience that reminds you how reading can be so enjoyable, inspiring and enlightening all at once.

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