‘The Muse’ is a novel packed with mystery, thwarted love and artistry. Following her captivating novel ‘The Miniaturist’, Jessie Burton’s next novel depicts an equally in-depth fictionalisation of contemporary cultural anxieties. Thus while ‘The Miniaturist’ explores the historic damning of sodomy, ‘The Muse’ depicts racial prejudice in the 1960s, as well as the social tension in the years leading to the second world war. However, while Burton tackles serious social anxieties, she also creates a heart-warming depiction of young love, friendship and ambition.
The novel begins in 1967 with the aspiring writer, Odelle. Odelle perseveres through her mundane job with her best-friend, while both navigate deeply embedded racial discrimination. However, Odelle’s life is indefinitely changed as she is offered a job at the prestigious art gallery, the Skelton. Odelle is thus acquainted with Marjorie Quick, a mysterious, elegant and secretive character who shows an overwhelming interest in the arrival of a lost masterpiece at the gallery. While adapting to her new position, Odelle equally must adapt to her new relationship with Lawrie. Odelle battles with her overwhelming emotion as the complex secrets of Lawrie slowly unravel within the plot.
The novel alternates between the setting of 1967 and 1936. This earlier setting follows the story of the Schloss family as they adapt to their new home in rural Spain, and become acquainted with both local citizens and local tensions. The story revolves around the inquisitive protagonist Olive, who possesses an awe-inspiring artistic talent. Olive quickly forms a friendship with the local girl Teresa, and equally develops an irresistible infatuation with Teresa’s brother, Isaac. The Schloss family quickly become entangled within the local political and social scandals. The plot ultimately reveals that Teresa possesses the dangerous secrets of each family member that threaten to disrupt the fragile familial harmony.
In both the 1967 setting and the 1936 setting, Burton contrasts social hostility with domestic romance. The reader cherishes the budding relationship of Odelle and Lawrie that traverses social discrimination. Similarly, the emotional investment of Olive depicts a sense of young infatuation and heartbreak that moves each reader. However, despite the seeming romantic tranquillity, the plot reveals the complex secrets of both Isaac and Lawrie. Thus Burtons subverts the romance genre, as she presents the sinister undertones to each relationship, and causes the reader to question the notions of truth and trust.
Burton’s exploration of hostility comes to a climax as the Schloss family are placed in the firing line of a social revolution in the lead up to the war. Burton vividly depicts the omnipresent fear of the local society as citizens come head to head with both the state and their neighbours. The violence and social unrest draws the focus away from the art of the family, as they must focus solely on survival. The secrets between the Schloss act as the ultimate catalyst of the tragic ending, as family, love and art are thwarted by political injustice.
The multigenerational contrast allows Burton to examine the far reaching consequences of treachery and deception. Equally, the characters of each generational circumstance battle with familial debauchery and romantic devastation. While in ‘The Miniaturist’ Burton intricately presents the cultural habits of Amsterdam in the 17th century, she equally focuses on the specific cultural environment of each setting in ‘The Muse’. Burton’s overwhelming focus on each contemporary society creates a captivating experience for the reader, as the links between the lost painting and the Schloss family gradually come to light. The novel consists of constant plot twists as both the protagonist and the readers search for the truth. Thus ‘The Muse’ places romantic and professional ambition within the setting of warfare and hostility, creating a novel fuelled by secrets.
– Hattie Hansford