The Muse is the much anticipated follow-up to Jessie Burton’s massive 2014 bestseller, The Miniaturist. The difficult second novel syndrome is well-documented and so the big question surrounding this novel was: does it deliver? I quite enjoyed The Miniaturist but didn’t love it, a personal preference as I thought it was well written and covered some interesting subjects. I just didn’t fall in love with the characters. What I wanted from The Muse was an enjoyable read, and a novel which really drew me in.
This is a very accomplished novel. Set in two historical time periods, the dual narratives expertly woven together, Burton has done an immense amount of research and in the main has pulled it off. I was very impressed by how the two stories came together, neither revealing too much before the conclusion, whilst offering hints as to how the mystery could be resolved.
Of the two strands, the first worked best for me, perhaps as it is written in first person. Set in 1967 it is written from the viewpoint of Odelle Bastien, a Trinidadian who is attempting to find her feet in London having arrived five years previously with her best friend, Cynthia. When we meet Odelle she is just about to start a new job at the Skelton gallery, glad to leave her dull job at Dolcis shoe shop on Clapham High Street. She is also feeling a little lonely after Cynthia marries her long term boyfriend and moves away to North London. On her first day at the Skelton she meets Marjorie Quick, the older woman quickly becoming a mentor and confidante. When a long-lost painting shows up at the gallery, Odelle turns detective, curious to discover the secret history behind it, and find out why Quick seems so antagonised by its appearance.
The second strand was not such an effortless read. It is written in third person and set in Andalucia in 1936, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Harold Schloss brings his wife Sarah and daughter Olive there after Sarah has become ill, suffering with depression. Nineteen year old Olive has just won a place to study at the Slade School of Fine Art but hasn’t told her parents. Harold, an art dealer, believes that fine art can only be produced by men and so she paints alone in secret. Local pair Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa arrive at the house looking for work and it turns out that Isaac is an aspiring artist. He is also a left-wing activist with links to the local anarchist group. When Sarah commissions Isaac to paint a portrait of herself and Olive as a surprise for Harold, it is the catalyst for a sequence of events that spills over into Odelle’s timeline.
Overall I really enjoyed The Muse. The plot worked brilliantly, and the conclusion was satisfying. One little niggling criticism is with some of the dialogue. A little of Olive’s was a little speech-like and unnatural, especially towards the second half of the book (or at least that’s when I began to really notice it). I also think that written dialect can be a difficult device to pull off, especially when it is used so sparsely that it throws you out of the story to read it. Burton uses this technique whenever Odelle speaks to her friend Cynthia and whilst I appreciate that she would have spoken more casually to a friend, I found reading ‘Ah’ for ‘I’ annoying, though the rhythm of the words worked. In the Spanish section there was also a LOT of history as the political situation worsens. Most was related to the characters which I enjoyed but there was almost a whole page of unrelated general facts which I admit to skimming over. I did feel a little removed from the characters in Spain generally compared to Odelle’s story. Perhaps it was the move from first to third person narration, but I did want to feel move moved by the events that brought this strand to its climax.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in modern historical fiction. For the most part the research is excellently incorporated so that it feels genuine to the reader without highlighting how much work has gone into it (there is an extensive bibliography at the end as proof!). There is some clever use of language, with only a few metaphors striking me as over thought. Burton has done really well writing a character from a different culture to herself and I believed in Odelle and found myself rooting for her. My final verdict is that The Muse was a joy to read and a fantastic follow up novel.