"It’s a complex story weaving themes set in different countries 30 years apart. But as the title suggests, it’s about creativity and what can inspire it."
Olive is a gifted painter but her pompous father believes women can never be artists. Thus begins the Spanish section of the book set in the turbulent Spanish civil war. It’s beautifully crafted – I loved it, and so will you.
The lack of respect for female creativity, in Olive’s case, her father’s contempt for her artistic talent, and in Odelle’s, the disdain she endures as a black woman writer, is the central theme of The Muse. Can women be great writers? Great artists? The emotional and practical barriers women faced (face?) is at the core of this exceptional book.
Olive hides her talent until she meets a young artist, Isaac, and his teenage sister Teresa. Isaac is a political activist raising funds to fight the fascists in the civil war. He an Olive decide to extract money from her parents who are oblivious to the violent carnage they face in the very near future.
The Muse is exciting, full of twists and turns, romance and art. Both Odelle and Olive feel (like so many women) that they cannot create without the help of the men they love. But actually it is not men who nurture their talent. It’s Marjorie Quick who places a story of Odelle’s in a prestigious literary magazine while Teresa worships Olive’s paintings.
It’s a complex story weaving themes set in different countries 30 years apart. But as the title suggests, it’s about creativity and what can inspire it.
The Muse is Burton’s second novel after the overwhelming success of The Miniaturist. Like all best-selling writers, she agonised, even suffered depression, about writing her second. Could it possibly match up? Her lack of confidence is, interestingly, echoed in this book. Odelle reflects: ‘I’d been writing for the particular purpose of being approved, so that I’d forgotten the genesis of my impulse… this imperative to be “good” had come to paralyse my belief that I could write at all.’ As it turns out, Odelle certainly could. So can Burton, quite brilliantly.
"I am totally in awe of Jessie Burton’s talent as a writer. Her scope, both geographic and historical, is extraordinary, and her prose is rich and sensuous."
I am totally in awe of Jessie Burton’s talent as a writer. Her scope, both geographic and historical, is extraordinary, and her prose is rich and sensuous. I cannot imagine the amount of research she must have put into this, her second novel, The Muse, but then again her first, The Miniaturist, set in 17th century Amsterdam, was a similar historical triumph. It sold over a million copies.
The Muse is set in two different periods and places – 1960’s London, and 1930’s Spain. It begins in the swinging ‘60s when a young woman from Trinidad, Odelle, is trying to make a living making in a Dolcis shoe-shop. It’s the only job she can get as a black immigrant, but Odelle is immensely ambitious and exceptionally clever. She longs to be a professional writer and when she applies for a job as a typist (£10 week – riches for her) at a prestigious gallery in London, she’s taken on by a mysterious women boss, Marjorie Quick, who senses Odell’s talent.
One day, Lawrie, a young man Odelle meets at a friend’s wedding, visits her at the Institute with an old painting he has inherited. He wants to know if it is worth much; and when the elegant Marjorie Quick sees it she looks as if she’s seen a ghost.
The mysterious origins of the painting are gradually revealed in the novel’s second timeline, set in Spain in 1936. In this section, Olive is the 19-year-old daughter of a brittle aristocratic Englishwoman and a wealthy Austrian art dealer, who are temporarily renting a Spanish finca.
Here are a selection of the reviews for The Muse
"Tantalising, beautifully poised, exquisitely detailed "
"Atmospheric and fascinating…keeps you gripped right to the unexpected conclusion"
"Haunting, magical and full of suprises, the kind of book that reminds you why you fell in love with reading"
S. J. Watson, author of Before I Go to Sleep