Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Jessie Burton's novel The Muse

Even when I have a big stack of books to read and a backlog on my iPad, sometimes a book muscles its way to the front of my list without rhyme or reason. I had read Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, but when I came across her latest book The Muse at the library, I knew nothing at all about it. Based on the back cover copy, I gave it a chance. I'm so glad I did.

The book opens in London in the late 60s, as Odelle Bastien, a young immigrant from the Caribbean, finds herself working at a small art gallery, after leaving a job selling shoes with her best friend. An aspiring writer, shy about sharing her poems and stories, she catches the attention of Lawrie Scott, a young man who technically crashes Odell's friend Cynth's wedding party, and then of Margery Quick, one of her employers at the Skelton. When Lawrie tracks her down at her work, bringing with him a painting that represents his only inheritance to his recently dead mother, the mystery of the painting's history piques the curiosity of Odelle and of everyone at the Skelton.

Burton then takes readers back in time to the 1930s, when young Olive Schloss has just moved with her English mother and Austrian father to the Andalusian region of Spain. When two young locals, Isaac and Teresa Robles, illegitimate children of a Spanish man with power and reputation in the community, Olive is drawn into both romance and unlikely friendship with the two.

Olive withholds the news from her parents that she's been accepted at an art school in London, especially when she learns that the handsome Isaac also considers himself an artist. Young Robles, involved with a group of rebels opposing the current government, is trapped by a deception about the art Olive produces, signing Isaac's initials.

Throughout the novel, Burton maintains a careful balance between the two story lines, which read almost like two separate novels until the story lines merge.  Odelle's story is sometimes reminiscent of Chris Cleaves' Little Bee, while the Spanish narrative has some echoes of Kingsolver's Lacuna. In fact, the description of the paintings that tie the two stories together sound like something Frida Kahlo might have painted.

The author manages to keep Odell's writing achievements nearly woven into the story, maintaining the mystery of her true muse Margery Quick and convincing readers with Odelle's insight, self-awareness, and attention to detail, that she could indeed work magic with the language.

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