On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change for ever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.
The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artists and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .
The Muse is Jessie Burton’s second novel following her debut, The Miniaturist. Set in both the 1960s and 30s, The Muse follows Odelle Bastien as she attempts to find her place in London as a young black woman with ambitions of her own whilst trying to uncover the mystery surrounding the lost masterpiece and Marjorie Quick. Alongside this, we follow Olive Schloss who is also trying to find herself and the place she fills within her family, society, and the lives of those around her. Both characters experience a journey of self-discovery as they uncover new secrets and begin to understand who they are following these reveals.
One thing I have loved about both of Jessie Burton’s novel is the historical context used. I am a big fan of novels set in the past that bring reality into fictional narratives and Burton is no exception – she even provides a bibliography at the end of The Muse to show her research and findings! With that being said, I loved the differences between these two time periods and the similarities that they also share in terms of prejudice; Odelle is a black woman living in a predominantly white London looking to make a name of herself within the literary world, whilst Olive is an outsider during a time of civil unrest within Spain, choosing to take sides without fully understanding the consequences and why these events are taking place. Not only is Olive taking sides, but her whole family, and their choices effect those around them. Similarly, Olive is looking to make a name for herself, in this case, within the world of art. It is amazing to see how similar Odelle and Olive are considering the time differences and their differences in culture. It is hard not to compare the two throughout the novel as their narratives develop and you begin to learn more about each character.
There is a major theme within The Muse surrounding that of women and their position in society, a theme that seems to be cropping up a lot more nowadays. I loved how both Odelle and Olive were strong women in that they knew what they wanted to achieve in life but understood that, in order for that to happen, there would be some form of sacrifice. It is obvious that, in both cases, society is predominantly patriarchal but it brings an empowering message that women can make it in the world in some form or another. This is shown through Marjorie Quick and the position she holds at the Skelton gallery as well as her overall persona. The way she talks to and about other men shows a woman who has had to fight to make her way to the top and keep her place there.
I much preferred this novel overall to Jessie Burton’s debut. I believe that her writing style and the way in which she structured this novel were far superior and show how much she has developed as a writer since that time. I loved reading about the diverse characters within this novel and how they incorporate themselves into a society that does not appreciate and fully accept them for who they are and how this can be different, yet similar in different settings. It is a novel I would recommend for anyone interested in women and their place in society as well as for those looking for characters with diversification.