The Muse by Jessie Burton review: a touch of second-novel syndrome
Flashes of brilliant writing are weighed down by the plot in ‘Miniaturist’ author’s new novel
Jessie Burton: the process of creating is again to the fore in her new novel. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
After Jessie Burton’s debut, The Miniaturist, sold more than a million copies worldwide, there are hints of second-novel syndrome in the language of her new book, The Muse. “I’ve seen what success does to people, Isaac, how it separates them from their creative impulse, how it paralyses them. They can’t make anything that isn’t a horrible replica of what came before, because everyone has opinions on who they are and how they should be.”
So says Olive Schloss, a virtuoso young painter in 1930s Andalusia who refuses to take credit for her work. Just as it was in The Miniaturist, the process of creating is to the fore in Burton’s new novel.
After relocating to Spain with her parents to alleviate her mother’s depression, Olive finds in the local landscape and people a wealth of inspiration. Cowed by her art-dealer father, who thinks women aren’t able to paint, Olive uses local revolutionary Isaac Robles as a front for her art in a storyline that has the Spanish Civil War as its backdrop.
A second, more engaging voice is that of Odelle Bastien, a Trinidadian immigrant in late-1960s England who gets an administrative job in the Skelton Institute of Art after five years of working in a shoe shop.
Odelle, an aspiring writer with a university degree, endures racism, from waitresses in teahouses and nosy women in tweed, as she tries to make a life for herself in the motherland. Afraid to submit her poetry or to read in public – “I glanced up only once at all the faces, small moons stopped for nothing else but me” – Odelle lets the imagined reactions of others stand in her way.
It is an interesting topic for Burton, an English writer who studied at Oxford and worked as an actor and a PA before The Miniaturist was published in 2014. Although her debut was a Sunday Times number-one bestseller, with TV rights recently optioned by the company that adapted Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the book received a mixed critical reaction.
Set in Calvinist Amsterdam, it follows a new bride in a strange country and the miniaturist who foreshadowed her life with his creations.
The finely tuned writing of The Miniaturist, with its details of domesticity like a Vermeer portrait, is again notable in The Muse. Burton has a painterly eye and her affinity for art underpins this story, both in terms of plot and language. As Odelle becomes embroiled in the art world through her enigmatic colleague Marjory Quick, everything from Nazi looting to dealer spin to the meaning of true genius are explored.
Reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s attention to detail in The Goldfinch, Burton brings the paintings to life by her meticulous research and powers of description: “Grounded colours on the fields – ochres and grasshopper greens, the folkloric tenderness of russet furrows and mustard browns.”
A fateful night in Spain sees fireworks mirror the civil unrest, exploding in the sky “red and green and orange, gigantic sea urchins, falling fountains”. When all is lost and those who are left flee Spain for the safety of England, the sea is “mud and milk, slate and leaf, and bronze when the light caught the crest of a wave.”
In a similar vein, memorable character sketches pepper the book. For Odelle in 1967, “Pam Rudge was the latest in a long line of East Enders, an immobile beehive lacquered to her head and enough black eyeliner to feed five pharaohs.” Odelle’s boss at the Skelton “conjured up a quintessential, intimidating Englishness, Savile Rowers in Whitehall clubs; eat the steak, hunt the fox”.
Yet for all this wonderful detail and interesting historical terrain, The Muse is weighed down with a heavy-handed plot that connects the two narratives. Odelle’s highly coincidental new relationship with Englishman Lawrie Scott strains credibility, as does his mysterious legacy from his dead mother.
Burton can’t resist flagging the mystery throughout, the sense of inevitable doom, drawing attention to her own artifice: “And to think you have a second path is to be a fool”; “If Lawrie hadn’t used it to try and take me on a date, would any of us even be sitting here today?” The ending is somewhat predictable, with a tendency to explain to a finish.
There are flashes of brilliance in The Muse, most notably in the voice of Odelle and her experience as an immigrant in 1960s London. The opening chapters sing with her insights and her dialogue with best friend Cynth, recalling the writing of Jamaica Kincaid. “My life was a beanstalk and I was Jack, and the foliage was shooting up and up,” says Odelle, close to the end of the novel.
But with everything else going on in The Muse, there is little space for the reader to witness her growth.
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist