As a reader, it’s a peculiar sensation to wonder whether an author might be confiding in you. Like breaking the fourth wall, there is no escaping the notion that the soul behind the page is choosing to bear its skin, rewarding your special attention to what’s written between the lines. Of course, any crack in the wall offers a view onto both sides; more often than not, it’s just a sequestered part of ourselves that is spilling out, expertly drafted from our own subconscious by the tender craft of a gifted artist.
Jessie Burton’s latest is something extraordinary. Fashioned from exacting, quick prose that nevertheless swerves, expressively, over the edge into poetry, The Muse delves deep into the secret world behind our daily countenances, painting our hidden and powerful feelings in broad and confident strokes, rivaled only by Burton’s careful attention to detail. The final result is of staggering beauty and elegance – truly a work of art.
When astute misfit and would-be author Odelle Bastien finally lands her dream job as a typist at an art gallery in sixties’ London, she captures the attention of its mercurial director, Miss Marjorie Quick. Gingerly easing into her tacit role as the ironclad woman’s secret protégée, their peculiar relationship is shaken up by the sudden appearance of a mystifying painting, hailed as a long lost masterpiece by Spanish artist Isaac Robles. While the painting is quickly capitalized upon as the shining crown-jewel in the gallery’s collection, its resurfacing seems to have inexplicably unnerved the pent-up Quick, leading Odelle to begin her own investigation into its shrouded journey.
Meanwhile, Olive Schloss, a privileged yet soul-searching young lady, follows her alienated and dysfunctional parents to a sleepy hollow in Andalusia in the brooding summer of 1936. When the attractive Isaac and his wily half-sister Teresa show up to offer their services to the upper-class family, Olive’s spirit is rudely awakened to the possibilities of her own life, and she feels herself becoming inextricably bound to the soil beneath her newfound home. Little do the Schloss family realize that their isolated abode is soon to become the eye of a storm that threatens to tear the country apart – as well as their lives.
Hardship and drama notwithstanding, it’s a real joy to find such a fresh piece with such an overriding sense of balance to it; The Muse feels lifelike in its complexity, with key story-points confidently spaced and delivered, and with many colourful details left dangling like loose threads – only to be snapped up again when you least expect it. And however dense and overabundant the gorgeous scenery gets, Burton really shows her flair by making sure that everything about The Muse ends up making so much sense! This is the most thrilling whodunit I have ever read – and it didn’t actually require a corpse.
What’s more, the secret story that intertwines both tales reads almost like an artists’ confession. For already boasting such a thought-provoking narrative, it is all the more impressive to find this silver thread running seamlessly throughout. Burton’s exploration of what it means to be an artist is painfully lucid: Both protagonists Odelle and Olive share this haunting sense of exquisite agony, the restless need to create something that matters beyond a shadow of doubt, and the brutal fight against self-hatred, doubt and flickering inspiration to see it through to the end, as well as the triumphant panic that needs to follow once one’s labour of love is exposed to the eyes of the crowd – whether in adoration, revulsion, or – heaven forbid – indifference.
I for one have never seen anyone but Burton frame this particular conundrum so strikingly, making me openly dread a life of complacent irrelevance, making me want to get up and write more, to imagine better music, to stir-fry a dish to perfection – to pluck something from my mortal being and throw it across a canvas in vast, angry flashes, in the hope that it might amount to more than myself. In that respect, The Muse certainly delivers on what it says on the tin.
After debuting with the celebrated The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s second is a glorious feast and a soul-piercing wake-up call for lovers of language and art alike, and I have yet to see anything like it; in either intent or execution.