The Muse, by Jessie Burton
The Muse was enjoyed by all of the group, with only one mark of less than 4 out of 5. Comments below are from the Guardian review.
In The Muse Burton has once again done the hard yards of research to reimagine not one but two distinct eras of the 20th century, and fused them to an intricate story of imposture. This is not a writer who can be faulted for ambition.
In the summer of 1967 a young woman named Odelle Bastien applies for a job at the Skelton Institute, a discreetly upmarket gallery in St James’s. Odelle, having arrived in London from Trinidad five years earlier, has put her dreams of being a writer on hold.
At her friend Cynth’s wedding reception, Odelle meets Lawrie, who has recently inherited a painting of a lion he thinks might be worth something. At the Skelton they’re very interested.
The mystery of the painting’s provenance is by degrees unveiled in the novel’s other timeframe, southern Spain in 1936.
Burton, juggling the two narratives, sets off chimes and resonances in her double portrait of hidden creativity. Slowly, themes of possession and identity begin to coalesce.
Burton constructs the dual plotline with painstaking craft, and has a good ear for the ambient interruptions of nature: “the cicadas began to build their rasping wall of sound”; “Bees drowsing on the fat flower heads, farmers’ voices calling, birdsong arpeggios spritzing from the trees”.
If there seems a fiercer conviction in the Spanish panel of the story, it may be because Burton is more engaged by the processes of painting, and by the virtuosity of its effects.
The bibliography she appends at the close indicates her immersion in the art history of the interwar years. She has also done her homework on the Spanish civil war.
The Muse is strong on the emotional and sensual, less so on the figurative depiction of interior states. It is a severely competent novel. The craftsmanship is solid, the sincerity of feeling is sustained to the end.