The Muse – Jessie Burton

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.

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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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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.

Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist) at Urmston Book Shop

Urmston Book Shop is a fantastic independent shop in a suburb of Manchester run by Frances and Peter. I discovered it because friends of ours live in Urmston and were adamant that I had to visit. I’ve been spending a fortune in there ever since and was delighted when I found out that they host author events. So far, I’ve seen brilliant events by Rachel Joyce, Anna Hope and, on Wednesday night, Jessie Burton.

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On arrival at the shop, we were treated to drinks and nibbles – miniature macaroons, buns and cakes – made by the talented Cath (@craftystarcakes) who had also made a miniature version of the book shop including figures of Frances and Peter, Jessie signing copies of The Miniaturist and a shopper you might recognise.

photo-22Jessie began by telling us about how The Miniaturist came about. She said she was becoming frustrated as an actress and spending more time working as a PA in the city than acting, so she wrote her first novel and sent it out to agents. She realises now that it wasn’t fully finished but she received some positive feedback and that was enough for her to keep going.

In 2009, she went on a trip to Amsterdam that would become the catalyst for The Miniaturist. During the visit, she went to the Rijksmuseum and saw the dolls’ house that belonged to Petronella Oortman. Jessie described the house as beautiful and intricate – there are rooms that you can’t see in it – but it was when she looked in the guide book and discovered that the house cost the same as a real house to build (£5–6 million) that it became really interesting to her. Why would anyone spend that much money on a dolls’ house? Jessie saw it as a symbol of power but one that comes with a lack of control over real life.

As Jessie began to research, she saw how this fit with life in Amsterdam at the time the house was being constructed. The 1680s was a corrupt period. The Dutch had the first global empire and the first multinational company with the VOC (the Dutch East India Company). This led to a disparity between surface life and private life and piety and hypocrisy. These tensions led Jessie to an idea: Petronella arrives in Amsterdam with a birdcage. She pushes open the door to the house; the interior is dark and grand. Standing in the shadows is another woman. There will be a power struggle between the two.

Jessie said she looked at a lot of paintings from the time – she described Amsterdam society as early Facebookers, documenting their lives in paintings and – for the very rich – replicas of their houses. The paintings showed characters who are unable to operate in wider society. Marin – the other woman in the scenario above – understands the compromise people make to survive – and even though Amsterdam was a more liberal city than most at that time (women could walk the streets unaccompanied and widows could run their dead husband’s businesses), there were still elements that had to remain hidden. Jessie posed the core of the book as a question: Can you control your life and if you can’t, how do you handle that?

IMG_0193We were then treated to a reading of the chapter, ‘Barge’. I use the word treated because Jessie’s a joy to listen to. Afterwards, questions from the audience were taken. Jessie was happy to talk about elements of the novel as well as the writing process.

How much time did you spend in Amsterdam?

Two trips that added up to just over a week. The second, she returned with a list of things she needed to find out. She did say ‘the internet’s a wonderful thing’!

Is it strange to think that the first trip’s had such a big impact on your life?

Jessie said that she was delighted and thrilled and glad that it was worthwhile, although she would’ve written the story anyway because she had to. She told us that the Dutch can be suspicious when foreigners set books in their country – what do you know about it? – but they love it and at the launch there, they had a lute player who played songs that had been composed based on events in the book. ‘Thanks, house!’

Was it a light bulb moment (seeing the house)?

It was when she bought the guidebook and saw how much it cost but that led to a struggle over four years to write The Miniaturist.

How soon after seeing the dolls’ house did you get the image of the two women?

Soon afterwards. Jessie then described how she felt she was writing her two selves – she’s now 32. She had a long journey finding out how to write it and initially she had the same scenes from both Nella and Marin’s viewpoints which she thought was really clever until she realised how long it was!

She also told is that Marin began as a 2D Mrs Danvers type character but that she became ‘enamoured’ of her. ‘I love her!’ [I do too!] And that Cornella was originally two maids but she ‘did a Vidal Sassoon and took her into the shower’ (Why take two bottles into the shower…).

Originally there were over thirty characters and Jessie stripped that back to seven.

Are you characters like those you found in your research?

No. Jessie said there’s very little documentation of the African Caribbean experience. They appear fetishised in paintings, so she used that to consider what if they were taken seriously?

There were little things she discovered and used, like some of Cornella’s recipes come from The Sensible Cookbook. However, the story was key and the research had to be a trigger rather than the dominating factor.

Why did you not choose a first person or dual narration?

First person would’ve been too strong a stylistic decision. Other characters needed to be opened up to the reader but two voices would dilute it. Jessie said that finding the narrator had been trial and error and she’d written from Johannes’ and Cornella’s viewpoints too before deciding what the book needed.

What made you conclude the book the way you concluded it? (No spoilers.)

Jessie said she wanted Nella to be a miniaturist too, to take control of her own fate. The miniaturist is a godlike element and a catalyst for change. Agnes’ experience with her is terrifying and painful, while Nella finds it empowering.

Originally the miniaturist was more elusive and the reader discovered little about her, but her editors challenged her on this. She also had a friend who read an early draft tell her to ‘Be a bit braver. End on a minor note.’

Jessie also revealed that in earlier drafts the miniaturist was a man and a love interest for Marin.

Who are your literary influences?

I don’t think I write like anyone, she said, but she loves the writing of Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald, Margaret Atwood, Siri Hustvedt (for her exploration) and Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books.

Her favourite book as a child was A Traveller in Time by Alison Utterly.

What does Johannes think of Nella?

It’s not a conventional marriage and initially, Jessie had made him a bit colder. But he loves and respects her; she lightens up his life. He’s quite trapped and has had this compromised marriage, arranged by his sister, to protect him, but they do have genuine conversations.

Jessie said that if Johannes and Marin were in the modern world, she would be the CEO of a company, and he the PR taking customers out on the yacht!

Did you find it very emotional writing the book?

‘No. The act of it is hell sometimes.’

If it was made into a drama would you like lots of input?

Yes, but she thinks if you sign it over you have to let go of it. She’s toyed with writing the screenplay but it’s a completely different skill. She cautious of letting go of the rights and has been told it needs ‘TV time with a film budget’, which is hard to get these days. Jessie did reveal that she’d like Cate Blanchett to play Marin.

Are you doing a US tour?

Yes. Boston, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, Kansas (Not sure if she was joking about the last one, check her website!)

Jessie then talked about being the only Brit at the Book Expo America, book fair where she felt like Hugh Grant!

Have you found the reception different in different countries?

Jessie said that it was the editing process that she really found different. Both lovely but in different ways: her UK editor would use the conditional, ‘Do you possibly think…?’ while her US editor was more direct, ‘WE NEED THIS’, ‘WHY HASN’T THIS HAPPENED YET?’

She also revealed that she never thought she’d get to the point where she couldn’t write it anymore but she did during the editing process. She knew it was right.

There’s an analogy between the writer and the miniaturist, do you think like that?

Jessie thought that was something that comes to the reader on reading and that she knows how many struggles and doubts she had along the way.

Will you do an audiobook because you have a fantastic voice?

‘I have!’

Do you have an idea for the next book? Is it historical?

Jessie revealed that she’s written 30,000 words of it. It’s a dual narrative about an artist who disappears in disgrace from Andalucía in 1937 and how that affects two women’s lives, the other in London in 1967. It’s called Belonging.

IMG_0195Jessie then spent time signing books and chatting to everyone before being presented with this beautiful cake made by Cath. (Take note writers, this is what you get if you do an event at Urmston Book Shop and I can vouch for Cath’s cakes, they are delicious.)

It was a great event. Jessie was full of passion for her book and, as you can see, very open about the process of writing a best seller (it was #3 in the hardback charts on the day of the event). I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Belonging which I’m sure will be every bit as fantastic as The Miniaturist.

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist begins as eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at her new home on the Herengracht canal, Amsterdam. She has a ‘small trunk and birdcage’ and a ‘blink of a marriage ceremony the month before – no garlands, no betrothal cup, no wedding bed’. She has married a successful businessman, Johannes Brandt, 39. The marriage was arranged by her mother following the death of Nella’s father.

Her father tied them up with his knot of debts – the soup thinned, the meat got scraggier, the servants fell away…’You need to marry a man who can keep a guilder in his purse,’ her mother said, taking up her pen.

‘But I have nothing to give in return,’ Nella replied.

Her mother tutted. ‘Look at you. What else do we women have?’

It is 1686 and women’s rights, or indeed rights for any ‘minority’, don’t exist.

It’s clear from the moment Nella stands on that doorstep, and we stand there with her, things aren’t as they ought to be. She uses the knocker to announce her arrival, then turns to watch an incident taking place on the street. When she turns back, the door is ajar.

Nella is sure of one thing as she looks deeper into the shadows. She’s being watched.

Eventually, someone speaks, ‘a voice sails sure and swift from the darkness of the hall’ and a woman reveals herself. The woman is Marin Brandt, Johannes’ sister.

Marin is cold and unwelcoming. She seems to resent Nella’s intrusion to the household, particularly as she’s given up her room for Nella’s use. However, once Johannes returns – from a trip to Venice, he tells Nella, although it is a trip to London he tells Marin about – another side to Marin is revealed. During breakfast, she discusses trade with her brother:

From bullion to sultans via the English, Marin’s lexicon is a serious astonishment. Johannes is surely crossing a forbidden boundary – for what other woman knows this much about the ins and outs of the VOC?

That’s not the only unusual thing about this brother and sister either, there’s only two servants in the household which is odd for someone so rich; the manservant, Otto, has black skin. Then there’s the footsteps and the doors opening and closing deep into the night. But for Nella, the most disturbing thing is the absence of her new husband from her bed.

In an attempt to appease Nella, Johannes buys her a wedding gift: an exact miniature replica of their house:

The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed. The nine rooms, from the working kitchen, the salon, up to the loft where the peat and firewood are stored away from damp, are perfect replicas. ‘It’s got a hidden cellar too,’ Johannes says, lifting the floor up between the working and best kitchens, to reveal a concealed empty space. The ceiling in the best kitchen has been painted with an identical trick of the eye. Nella remembers her conversation with Otto, as he pointed his finger to that unreal dome. Things will spill over,’ he’d said.

And they will, as Nella enlists the services of a miniaturist who will create piece for the house which are a little too realistic.

The Miniaturist is a gripping read. Burton’s skill as a writer is evident in a number of ways: the air of menace which is created on the very first page of the novel and pervades all 422 pages of it; the creation of Marin, in particular, who is the very best sort of unlikeable character and whose layers are slowly stripped away as the story progresses, and the deft plotting. The book twists and turns when it’s least expected without it feeling unrealistic or unnecessary. Some of the twists are truly shocking in the revelation and the moment you think the story has settled again, another jolt comes along.

I’m not a big historical fiction fan but I read The Miniaturist in three days (during one of our busiest times at work) because I had to know why, what, who, where, when and once I had one piece of information the absence of another was revealed. Jessie Burton has produced an impressive debut novel; I look forward to following what will surely be a very successful writing career.

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.