Jessie Burton gets over that difficult-second-album syndrome by writing her second book about how tough creative quality, value and recognition can be in this decent book.
Two stories are intertwined here: In the first, we meet an Austrian art dealer living in Malaga in the moths before the Spanish Civil War, and his prodigiously talented artist daughter, Olive Schloss. After their arrival in Spain, all-round fixer, political agitator, would-be revolutionary, and fierce republican, Isaac Robles helps the family settle in, whilst teaching young Olive about the finer things in art, and painting portraits of the family.
In the second story, it is 1967, and Odelle Bastien is a talented young Trinidadian writer working in London as a typist for Marjorie Quick, when a painting by Robles, Rufina and the Lion, crosses her desk. As soon as Quick sets eyes on the thing she is visibly stunned, and a 30 year old mystery is set in motion: Why did Quick react like that? Who really painted Rufina and the Lion? What happened to it during the Spanish Civil War? How did it happen to arrive in the back of a car at the Skelton Institute of Art?
This setting allows Burton to explore creativity – how it’s done, how we are recognised for it and whether it can be repeated (see? It’s that difficult-second-album effect I mentioned before):
“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.”
Some of Burton’s writing in the Muse is fantastic – one of Odelle’s bosses “conjured up a quintessential, intimidating Englishness, Savile Rowers in Whitehall clubs; eat the steak, hunt the fox”. Just brilliant.
Throughout it all, it is Odelle’s voice that shines brightest. Her character is the most engaging, and her dialogue the most memorable (she describes her co-worker as, “the latest in a long line of East Enders, an immobile beehive lacquered to her head and enough black eyeliner to feed five pharaohs.”). But everything else in the Muse can threaten to overshadow Odelle’s voice – especially towards the end, when Burton has a tendency to fall into explaining every last plot detail.
I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for something a bit different. It’s so sprawling it is difficult to say it is one kind of book in particular – it’s almost a whodunnit, social commentary, and historical fiction all in one. Is that too much for one book to achieve? Maybe, but Burton has made a good go at it here.