How do you follow up a million-selling debut novel? If you’re Jessie Burton, you do it with a story that develops the concerns of your first book structured in a more sophisticated manner.
The Muse tells two stories, that of Odelle Bastien in London, 1967, and of Olive Schloss in southern Spain, 1936. The two tales are connected by art, creation, identity, friendship and love.
Odelle’s been in England for five years, ever since she sailed into Southampton from Port of Spain with her best friend, Cynth. They share a flat off Clapham Common and work in Dolcis. As the novel begins, Odelle receives news that she has a week’s trial at The Skelton Institute, working for a Marjorie Quick.
Around the same time, Cynth marries her fiancé, Samuel. At the party afterwards, Odelle meets a man named Lawrie Scott. Intent on taking her dancing at a club in Soho, he tells her he needs to drop a painting at his friend’s house first. Taking Odelle to his MG, she looks at the painting:
As an image, it was simple and at the same time not easily decipherable – a girl, holding another girl’s severed head in her hands on one side of the painting, and on the other, a lion, sitting on his haunches, not yet springing for the kill. It had the air of a fable.
Despite the slight distortion from the orange street lamp above us, the colours of the lower background reminded me of a Renaissance court portrait – that piled-up patchwork of fields of all kinds of yellow and green, and what looked like a small white castle. The sky above was darker and less decorous; there was something nightmarish about its bruised indigoes. The painting gave me an immediate feeling of opposites – the girls against the lion, together in the face of its adversity. But there was a rewarding delicacy beyond its beautiful palette of colours – an elusive element that made it so alluring.
The next time Odelle sees Lawrie he’s tracked her down to The Skelton Institute and he’s brought the painting for someone to have a look at. When he reveals the painting in front of Marjorie Quick, she leaves the institute abruptly. Odelle’s story develops her relationship with Lawrie, her friendship with Quick, significant news about the painting, and Odelle’s own ambitions as a writer.
Olive Schloss, back in 1936, has received a letter of acceptance to the Slade School of Fine Art. But she’s applied in secret – her parents are unaware that she paints.
Her father always said that of course women could pick up a paintbrush and paint, but the fact was, they didn’t make good artists. Olive had never quite worked out what the difference was. Since she was a little girl, playing in the corners of his gallery, she would overhear Harold discussing the issue with his clients, both men and women – and often the women would agree with him, preferring to put their money behind young men rather than anyone of their own sex. The artist as naturally male was such a widely held presupposition that Olive had come at times to believe it herself.
Things change for the Schloss family when Isaac and Teresa Robles arrive at their house. Teresa becomes their housekeeper while Isaac reveals that he paints. Sarah, Olive’s mother, engages Isaac to paint a portrait of her and Olive as a surprise for Harold. As they sit for the painting, Olive falls in love, unknowingly leading the family into danger, and Teresa carries out an act of revenge that solves the problem of Olive’s secret paintings.
Creating a dual narrative that maintains the same level of reader attention to both stories is a challenging task. Maggie O’Farrell is master of this but Burton’s pulled it off with aplomb at the first attempt. She does so by both building parallels into the narrative around the themes of art, creation and love, and through links between the two stories. Burton’s an astute judge of when to make these links and where in the plot to reveal which pieces of information. The twists and turns are subtler and more sophisticated than those in The Miniaturist and it makes for a more satisfying read.
Another point of interest is the way in which Burton makes Odelle a writer (unpublished at the beginning of the novel). Largely because there are points in Odelle’s story where it feels as though Burton’s giving herself a pep talk:
‘It’s who I am. So if it’s not any good, then neither am I.’
She stared at me. ‘Do you mean as a person?’
‘Oh, no. Don’t be moral about this, Odelle. You’re not walking around with a golden halo beaming out of you depending on the power of your paragraph. You don’t come into it, once someone else is reading. It stands apart from you. Don’t let your ability drag you down, don’t hang it round your neck like an albatross.’ She lit another cigarette. ‘When something is considered “good”, it draws people in, often resulting with the eventual destruction of the creator. I’ve seen it happen. So whether you think it’s “good” or not should be entirely irrelevant, if you want to carry on. It’s tough but there it is. And of course, whether I think it’s good should also be neither here nor there. Even more so, in fact. I think you’re worrying too much.’
On this occasion, I don’t think Burton needs to worry at all: The Muse is a good read; it stands on its own and will delight fans of The Miniaturist.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.