The Muse
Jessie Burton
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The Muse
Jessie Burton
416 pages
July 2016
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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The Muse is a terrific following up to Jessie Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist. Burton melds the immigrant experience in London in 1967 to one family’s experiences as they battle through the chaos of the Spanish Civil War. Through beautifully constructed alternating chapters, Trinidadian Odelle Bastein, her boss Marjorie Quick, and Harold and Sarah Schloss (along with their daughter, Olive) cast a wide and intimate net, their characters anchoring much of this exotic, entertaining tale.

Having immigrated to England several years previously, Odelle’s story is one of struggle and heartbreak. Odelle might possess a first-class English literature degree, but in 1967 London, the only work that she can find is selling shoes. Odelle’s life changes for the better when she gets a typist position at the Skelton Institute of Art. Ostensibly employed to transcribe research notes for academic men she never sees, Odelle strikes up a friendship with Marjorie Quick and Edmund Reede, the mysterious man who runs the institute and is rumored to have had something to do with recovering art confiscated by the Nazis. As Odelle struggles with her own writing, she finds herself drawn to the musky, enigmatic, and sometimes glamorous Marjorie.

Disappointed by the shameless prejudice that shadows her throughout the streets of London, Odelle turns to Lawrie Scott, who she meets at her best friend's wedding reception. Lawrie tells her about his recently deceased mother and how he hopes that someone might take a look at one of her paintings. Invited by Odelle, Lawrie brings the work to Skelton. Upon viewing the painting, Marjorie becomes flustered and runs off, while Reede is only too happy to drink in the painting’s startling images. On one side is a girl holding a severed head; on the other, a lion sits on his haunches just before springing for the kill. Called Rufina and the Lion, the painting is staggering in its sensuality and power. Marjorie reminds Odelle that Reede would like to make the work a “big splash,” not just for the Skelton but also for himself.

Propelling Burton’s story forwards are Odelle’s valiant efforts to connect Rufina and the Lion back to 1936 and the Schloss family. At the time, the Schlosses lived in an isolated village in the south of Spain. While Odelle ruminates on Marjorie’s strange, fractured reaction to the painting, art dealer Harold Schloss seeks to capitalize on the work of Isaac Robles who with his sister, Therese, turned up at Schloss’s grandiloquent “finca” looking for work. Isaac and Therese--both revolutionaries at heart--are well aware these wealthy foreigners are a source of income, this family of ex-pats who have brought to the country their industrious inheritances and discontentment with big-city life.

Teresa and Isaac both find themselves drawn to beautiful and talented Olive, and Isaac unwittingly becomes the dominant force in Olive’s life. They embark on affair, drawn together by their almost divine love of painting. Harold Schloss adamantly ignores Olive’s desire to become an artist (painting is a man’s world), far more concerned with cajoling and flattering and doing “whatever it takes” to court Isaac, whom he thinks will be “next year’s genius.” The twist in the story is Rufina and the Lion’s real provenance. As Odelle attempts uncover the truth, she tries to vindicate Lawrie’s mother by turning to Marjorie Quick for answers. Odelle is positive that Marjorie knows more about the painting than she initially lets on: “Everything Quick had ever wanted me to know but couldn’t find the words, to tell me to my face.”

From the sleepy village of Arazuelo, which will soon erupt into violence, to the deceptively tranquil halls of Skelton, Burton unfolds the miraculous origins of a painting that for decades has trapped Marjorie in the metaphorical skeletons of her past. Olive, meanwhile, revels in her evenings spent under the vast Andalusia skies. Her desire to become an accomplished artist is bigger and brighter than anything Odelle’s imagination could have pictured. In this landscape of art and love, romance and tragedy, Burton ties Olive and Isaac’s unadulterated passion to their decision to hoodwink Harold, to Odelle’s efforts to discover the mystery behind a photo of Isaac taken at Malaga around 1935 or '36.

Teresa's choices threaten to engulf both her brother and Olive. Odelle must meet her own literary challenges as she tries to unlock Marjorie Quick’s secrets. Beautiful and heartbreaking, Burton’s novel unfolds in almost fable-like tones as her characters are once again challenged with the hidden price of creativity and the volatile, unstoppable nature of true artistic genius.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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