The Muse follows two female protagonists; Olive Schloss, a secret painter who moves with her mother and father to rural Spain in 1936; and Odelle Bastien, a Trinidad migrant who finds work at an art gallery in 1967 London. While the stories may seem polar opposites and hard to intermingle, Jessie does this brilliantly. The characters take alternating chapters and you never feel confused or irritated by the back and forth. I enjoy this kind of narrative and find it a stimulating read. With most novels with varying viewpoints you do tend to lean towards a favourite, however in this book I found both story lines as engrossing as each other. If I did have to pick a favourite character, it would be Marjorie Quick, the sleek, secretive art dealer in the 1967 strain of the story. Her character was aloof but engrossing and constantly had me asking what she really wanted.
The Spanish side of the story is set during the starting rumbles of the Spanish civil war, which is not a subject that I've read much about before so knew very little of the situation. Although her work is fiction, I felt like there were scenes or attitudes in there that could have been real. I don't want to spoil a major piece of the plot, but towards the end there is a scene of such brutal treatment towards a character that I found myself actually distressed for the character. It was an act that I couldn't even comprehend as happening, and yet I'm sure things like it did happen.
The 1967s London thread dealt lightly with some racism issues that black migrants would have had to contend with, but in a way I felt like this could have been explored more. Occasionally the Trinidadian protagonist of this thread adopted linguistic features that identified her origins, but most of the time I felt that she could have been a white Londoner- her heritage didn't add anything to the story, and could have been played on more.
That being said, I loved The Muse and found it an entertaining and engrossing read. Jessie Burton has a real talent for endings that surprise me and her characters often stay with me long after I've finished reading about them. At her event recently at the Edinburgh International Book Festival she mentioned that she was already working on her next project which is a children's book retelling a fairy tale with a feminist twist. I'm already counting down the days until it is released.
Title: The Muse
Author: Jessie Burton