Book Review: The Muse, by Jessie Burton

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_museThere’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 Bryson

The Muse
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250944

Book Review: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

Available in bookstores nationwide.

This is an interesting book. The setting and story are fascinating. This book is set in cv_the_miniaturist17th-century Amsterdam – a compact city that is dominated by canals, the constant threat of flooding, and a secretive society where everyone knows your business.

Jessie Burton’s book was inspired by Petronella Oortman’s real cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. This ornate miniature house becomes a central character in this book. The inanimate objects that are created by the mysterious Miniaturist are central and ever present to the story that unfolds. The only other factual aspect to this story is the main character’s name. Petronella, or Nella as she describes herself, is a young bride arriving in Amsterdam from rural Holland. Her family have arrange for her to marry a man, more than twice her age, who leads a secretive life on the seas as a trader, and in Amsterdam as a privileged (and rich) merchant.

I struggled to get into this book at first, but eventually the mysterious characters, atmosphere, and building and suspenseful climax kept me going. Amsterdam at the time, and possibly even now, in the city where people live in close proximity, where neighbours find it easy to peer into front room windows. In fact, the front rooms are designed for such a purpose. In a world so open, people crave for privacy. And in this 17th-century Amsterdam, the teenage bride struggles to learn all of the secrets the city and the family she has joined hold dear. In fact, her fragmented experiences are reflected in the ever present but mostly absent Miniaturist.

This book takes the reader to an utterly believable world and you become immersed in that world. It’s a slightly unusual tale, but on reflection probably quite likely to have occurred in that time period. It is an original and atmospheric story (the book is set in the dark wet winter months, and at times you feel the dampness pervade your thoughts), with a fabulous mix of suspense, love and loss.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250920