Author Jessie Burton became an international sensation when her first novel The Miniaturist became a best-seller across Europe. Back then my Twitter feed was full of praise for Burton and her debut novel. However, the story did not appeal to me at all, and after discussing this with other bloggers I decided I did not have to read a book just because everyone loved it. When Burton’s next novel The Muse came out last June I knew it was the right time to discover the author everyone loves. Thanks to Picador for the review copy.
The Muse tells two different stories, both with women as main characters. In 1967 Odelle Bastien, young aspiring writer recently arrived from Trinidad, clims one of London’s most prestigious galleries to start a job that will change her life. Meanwhile, Olive Schloss moved to Spain in 1936 with her Jewish family trying to escape central Europe’s madness. What she does not know is that Spain is about to enter a madness of its own.How these two stories relate, and how both women are connected are up to readers to discover. More information can be found on the backcover of the book, but I think The Muse is one of those books that has to be discovered on its own. If you are feeling brave, I suggest you stop reading here and pick up a copy without doing more research.
The novel is a meditation on art, home, love, and the immigrant experience that will hit close to home to European readers who, like Odelle and Olive, are either experiencing or feeling powerless about the suffering that is happening. In any case, Burton makes the immigration experience a subjective one, where people are not part of waves of immigration or displaced groups, but rather individiuals with feelings, desires and aspirations:
There were tears, of course, mainly sobbed into my sagging pillow. The pressure of desire curled inside me. I was ashamed of it, and yet it defined me. I had bigger things I wanted to do, and I’d done five years of waiting. In the meantime, I wrote revenge poems about the English weather, and lied to my mother that London was heaven. (Odelle, 1967).
As a young, educated, black woman living in London in 1967 Odelle is faced with the lie of colonial education, that is, the terrible lies the Empire told about the motherland in the colonies. She also struggles with her identity, as she does not feel Caribbean nor does she feel English. Who is she? And what is she living in the inbetweenness when she was praised in Trinidad for her English manners and education? Odelle also has to face the reality behind the colonial enterprise and the racial hierarchies still alive so that when she starts dating a white, English boy, she is openly insulted by an old lady.
Meanwhile, Olive is the teenage daughter an affluent European couple. Her father is a Jewish art merchant escaping the horrors of Vienna, while her mother clings to her past as a flapper and her fading beauty. But Olive – who uncanningly embodies the current hipster aesthetics and lifestyle – just wants to be an artist. At the beginning of her story she is desperate to escape Spain and move to London, where she has been admitted into a presitigious art school. But things change when she meets Teresa and Isaac, working-class local sibblings desperate to make a living out the newly arrived Schloss family. Burton did a great job of portraying Andalusia’s poverty and socio-economic troubles, but also the ideological tension that preceeded the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). Isaac is ‘a red’ with connections to Malaga’s annrchist groups, but also a social activist. However, his ideology does not prevent him from being gender-equality blind, and from performing a masculinity verging on the ‘Spanish macho’ stereotype: Dark, strong, a little bit rough, a fighter, you can imagine Olive’s response to him.
Luckily for female and feminist readers Olive is aware of gender roles and she struggles to perform her identity as an artist and as a young, desirable woman:
The artist as naturally male was such a widely held presupposition that Olive had come at times to believe it herself. As a nineteen-year-old girl, she as on the underside; the dogged, plucky mascot of amateurship. (Olive, 1936)
Do you know how many of them [artist sold by Olive’s father] are women, Isaac? None. Not one. Women can’t do it, you see. They haven’t got the vision, although last time I checked they had eyes, and hands, and hearts and souls. (Olive, 1936)
In 1967 Odelle seems to feel free to be a woman artist, although Burton wisely added racial diversity to the struggle posting questions about race, social class and ethnicity and what we, as a society, believe to be art.
The Muse is probably the best book I have read this year until now. Sitting down and opening the book – a work of art on its own, as the cover is one of the most beautiful I have seen – was a pleasure that took me out of a reading slump and reminded me why I love books, and art, and stories.