Here is my review of The Muse by Jessie Burton.
Firstly I feel that the cover, although interesting, trivialises the calibre of this book.
I was so starved when reading this that I ate it up merely because it was edible. It definitely merits a second reading, so that you can appreciate its often wry and satisfying descriptions:
‘Cynthia married Samuel at Wandsworth Register Office, in a small room that smelled of bureaucracy and cheap perfume…’
In alternate chapters, spanning southern Spain in 1936 and London in 1967, The Muse concerns the intrigue of a painter, a family and a painting. The book is also a quietly spoken exploration of the nature and purpose of art and artists. The very last sentence resonates like a mini manifesto on that theme.
In 1967 we follow Caribbean immigrant graduate, Odelle Bastien, from a shoe shop to a gallery post as a typist. I had to check whether The Skelton Gallery actually existed. Skelton is all too close to ‘skeleton’ and it could not be more apt, because the painting around which this novel revolves is a vivid “skeleton in the closet” that has been dragged into the London light. It is fictional, exemplifying Burton’s liking for subtle world-building in-jokes.
The Skelton’s motto, on the doors, is ARS (art) VINCIT OMNIA. Odelle enters by pushing through VINCIT OMNIA. Duly she ‘conquers all’ that is hidden. Burton carries her wit well in this novel, waiting to see if you notice, but unconcerned if you don’t.
The other narrative in the 1930s is well-researched and believable but focuses on the dysfunctional, artistic Schloss family and the endeavours of their daughter Olive to be independent in her parents’ world, whilst also being in Franco’s Spain: where the painting linking everyone through time, Rufina and the Lion, is first painted.
The characters seemed piquant and well-formed because they are – harshly and endearingly – frank. I took umbrage at the possibility that Burton (who is White) was somehow trying to usurp Black Afro Caribbean experience. She seemed to be chancing it with piecemeal references “pretending” to be Odelle: until she compounded this with believable Patois dialogue. Then, slowly, Burton erased herself in Odelle’s layers of cultural self-hood.
The plot held no huge surprises for me. The drama increased towards the end with jeopardy and violence that intensified the plot. I think I was led well, but I did wonder at Burton’s power if she had tried more surprises. It came to a reasonable conclusion, not as good a payoff as I hoped, but I couldn’t help feeling that the arguments of the book are bigger (and of a different register) than the frame of the plot.
Burton can be considered a competent technician, a spokesperson for artists and a good plotter. It was well paced, a page-turner – but not a cheap one. The Muse‘s readability almost discredits it, because it has much about it to muse on that a casual reader might miss.
Overall, the value of this novel depends on your willingness to excavate it, despite it also being diligently curated for you.
(© Copyright Pola Negri 05/05/2017.)