Why are we so trapped by the hours, the minutes of every day? Why can’t we live the life that’s always out of reach?
As a massive fan of The Miniaturist, it felt like Christmas Day when I came home to my pre-ordered hardback copy of The Muse by Jessie Burton. For a start, the cover illustration is breathtaking. Every detail of Burton’s novels, inside and out, fill me with the magical feeling that I thought I’d left behind in my childhood of Roald Dahl novels. She captures the imagination like no other contemporary author that I can think of. Needless to say, I was slightly apprehensive about how high my hopes had been built but I was not disappointed.
The Muse tells two incredible tales of female artists set over two different time periods: 1967, London and 1936, southern Spain. In 1967, Odelle is a Trinidadian immigrant who has been living in London for five years. She is a struggling writer but her potential is unlocked by her mysterious new boss, Marjorie Quick, who pushes Odelle to go beyond the boundaries of her gender and race and fulfill her dream of being a published author. Odelle is shy and wary; she approaches everything in her life with the utmost caution from career prospects to her romantic life.
No wonder we scaredy-cats retreated into books. Sex was beneath us, because it was beyond us.
In 1936, the struggling artist is stubborn and ferocious, Olive, the daughter of a depressed Hollywood-esque starlet and an Austrian art seller. Olive has been offered a place at the Sade to study art but is unable to attend as she is whisked away by her parents to live in Andalusia because of her mother’s poor mental health. Unlike Odelle, Olive faces life with wild abandonment throwing herself deeply into a love affair with an enigmatic revolutionary, Isaac Robles. However, like Odelle, Olive is frustrated by the boundaries she faces as a female artist; she knows her paintings simply could not sell with her name on them so she and her housemaid, Teresa, construct a plan to get her artwork noticed while remaining invisible. When I think of the women in this novel, I think of the following Toni Morrison quote from Sula about the dangers of ridding a woman of her creative outlet:
Like any artist without an art form, she became dangerous.
As for the settings in The Muse, post-war industrial London and earthy, rural Andalusia lend themselves beautifully to the story and they come alive in Burton’s dense writing style. I expected nothing less after experiencing Burton’s Amsterdam in The Miniaturist. Everything is described in beautiful, painstaking detail. I felt like I could taste and smell the air the characters were breathing and I was completely lost in the ambers and golds of the dry Southern Spanish landscape. I’m visiting Malaga in two weeks time and I can’t wait to pretend I’m Olive Schloss dreamily walking through the old town.
Finishing The Muse feels like the end of a wonderful love affair: I’m heartbroken that it is over, frustrated that I have to wait to fall in love with another book again and frightened that something as exciting and wonderful might not come along anytime soon but it is worth the heartache to have experienced it. The Muse is full of mystery, passion, heartache and the ferocious will to survive in a world that is burning down all around you. I urge you to buy a copy and put it at the top of your summer to-be-read pile so that you too can be whisked away into another space and time by this stunning novel.
N.B: some comments on my blog from the author herself.