There’s something magical about Jesse Burton’s The Muse. It’s visually immersive in a way I haven’t experienced in a long while. The language feels painterly – a style that reverberates with the content and themes of the novel, and there’s an effortlessness in the prose that feels like ‘viewing’ rather than ‘reading’.
The Muse presents two narratives, starting in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, an immigrant from Trinidad and a writer who’s more familiar with London’s feet than its journals. Unsatisfied with her job in a shoe shop, she’s offered a position at the Skelton Gallery as a typist, and is swept under the wing of Marjorie Quick. She soon becomes enraptured by the origins of a newly-surfaced painting, its owner, and what Quick may be hiding about her knowledge of it.
The painting’s origins are unearthed in the 1936 story of Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer and a secret painter herself, whose sexual awakening and coming-of-age manifests in an obsession with a local artist. The two narratives enhance the telling of each other in ways that almost necessitate a second reading – there are some truly beautiful insights on life, loneliness, otherness and creativity; yes, some brutal realities are swept over, but so the brush keeps moving.
The John Berger epigraph: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” is so fitting, not only in keeping with the novel itself, but also in encompassing its creation. Jesse Burton’s first book The Miniaturist was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies. On her blog, Burton has been quite open about her struggles with depression and anxiety following the success of her first novel (link to her amazing post below). Themes of artistry, creativity and success in The Muse are marked by the author’s fingerprints of experience. I’ve mused on a fair few passages myself – the reading was at times truly cathartic.
Although a little heavy-handed at times, The Muse is one of my favourite books this year. It’s multi-faceted and poignant, and it resonated personally. I thinkBurton makes good on the sentiment she expressed in February, where she so openly discussed the process drafting this book:
“I have tried to write a novel full of life. I have written a book whose themes interest me, a book I would like you to read on a gloomy English night, a book to transport you as much as it chimes close to home.”
Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador