When you’ve enjoyed an author’s debut novel as much as I enjoyed “The Miniaturist”, the arrival of a second book is a time not just of excitement but also a tiny bit of trepidation that perhaps this novel won’t quite reach the heights of the first. Jessie Burton’s tale of the mysterious dolls’ house and its owner will always have a special place in my heart as I’d never read anything quite like it before, so it’s with some surprise that I’m able to say without hesitation that “The Muse” is actually a better novel.
The book is split fairly equally between two stories and time periods. In 1967 Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad, thinks she has fallen on her feet when she lands a job at a London art gallery; before long, however, the arrival of an intriguing painting with a questionable history draws Odelle into a world of secrets for which she is completely unprepared. In 1936, in a large house in rural Spain occupied by Austrian art dealer Harold Schloss and his family, the provenance of the picture starts to come to light. The family have not long moved in when two local youths, Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, come to the finca looking for housekeeping work. Teresa quickly becomes friends with Olive, the Schloss’s daughter, but Olive’s attention is drawn towards Isaac, the artistic, volatile elder brother, who is politically passionate and as handy with a gun as he is with a paintbrush. Spain is on the brink of the horrific civil war that will tear it apart, and the Schloss family’s involvement with left-wing revolutionary Isaac is about to become a very dangerous one.
One of the joys of this novel is the way the pieces of the jigsaw gradually come together to tell the true story of the aforementioned painting, so with that in mind I’m not going to give away any more details of the plot here. What I do want to talk about is that magical something that makes Jessie Burton, in my eyes, such a compelling writer. It seems a slightly bizarre thing to say, but what I loved most about this novel was the subtle but almost universal sense of sadness underpinning each character’s existence. The arrival of the civil war in the latter part of the book brings with it vivid and grotesque horrors, but the author absolutely nails the face that suffering is not in any way confined to the big, key moments of grief or fear that periodically punctuate our lives. Sadness hovers constantly about her characters, whether it’s two friends gradually growing apart, loneliness kept at bay with drugs and alcohol or a love affair that never quite turns into the grand romance that it should, the spectre of disappointment is always there.
So can the determined pursuit of artistic endeavour assuage this sense of disappointment? Or is it in fact our demons that drive our artistic impulses and lead us to produce our best creations? Isaac Robles, the angry freedom fighter, can undoubtedly paint with skill, but his true passion lies in creating not a beautiful piece of art, but the Spain that reflects his political ideology. Olive Schloss is also a talented painter with an as yet unfulfilled desire to study at art school in England; but until she meets and develops passionate feelings for Issac, she has never found the raw soul to put into her work. It goes without saying that the path of her love for this fiery young man will never run smoothly, but it is undoubtedly love’s torment that unleashes the talent she has always possessed. Back in the 1960s, gallery administrator Odelle is nursing a creative spark of a different kind. She’s an aspiring writer whose work has only been shared with friends and family until matriarch of the gallery Marjorie Quick spots her ability and encourages her to start thinking bigger. Like Olive some thirty years before her, Odelle falls in love, but for her the relationship between love and creativity is a more ambiguous one. On the one hand she recognises that for her, writing is in many ways akin to love; and yet love can also get in the way, preoccupying the mind that needs to be left free if one’s best work is going to come. “The Muse” is more than the story of one painting; it’s a fascinating exploration of art’s place and purpose in life.
I really appreciated the fact that, although there is a genuine element of mystery to the novel, Jessie Burton is never out to completely fox her readers; she lays enough clues that you can start to work out where the story is going, and the plot is not so wilfully obscure that there have to be any bizarre twists in order to reach a resolution. Yes, there are a couple of revelations left right to the end, the final one of which wrapped everything up so neatly that I wanted to punch the air in satisfaction. The one issue I had with “The Miniaturist” was that it left a couple of pretty significant questions unanswered – or at least not answered adequately for me – but I had no such issues this time round. I really felt that everything about the story had bene meticulously thought out, and the result is an extremely fulfilling read.