“Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve. Many moments that change a life's course - a conversation with a stranger on a ship, for example - are pure luck. And yet no one writes you a letter, or chooses you as their confessor, without good reason. This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play.”
The pieces put into play by Jessie Burton in her dazzling novel The Muse are some of the most eloquently fashioned I’ve ever seen. The novel is set within two separate timelines that interweave into one intricately told story. You are first introduced to Odelle Bastien, a transplant from Trinidad who has recently moved to London. Odelle is a talented writer, though she has cast her talents aside in favor of a steady position working as a typist in the famed Skelton Institute. It is at the Skelton that Odelle meets Marjorie Quick, an enigmatic woman harboring a profoundly weighted secret. Ms. Quick becomes somewhat of a mentor to Odelle, though the two women share a complicated relationship that defies explanation, and expectation.
Odelle’s story takes place in 1967, and author Jessie Burton does not shy away from the racism and sexism that was rampant in London during this era. Odelle frequently narrates instances of racism she faces through subtle interactions and outright declarations. Throughout the length of story told from Odelle’s perspective, the reader is granted an insight into what it’s like to live in a world where you are on the outside looking in. As the timeline progresses, Odelle has a chance meeting with a young man by the name of Lawrie, who has recently suffered the sudden death of his mother and is left reeling from his loss. Lawrie confides in Odelle that his erratic mother left him a treasured painting, and he asks Odelle to look at the painting and tell him what she thinks of the image. Odelle is immediately intrigued by the depth of the painting and the brutal message it conveys, though she chooses to distance herself from the matter entirely. This is until Lawrie shows up on the steps of the Skelton Institute and asks Marjorie Quick to look at the painting to deem its worth. Ms. Quick appears disturbed when confronted with the painting, and so the thread of the story comes loose.
The secondary timeline brings the reader back to 1936, where you are introduced to 19-year-old Olive Schloss and her parents, a notable art dealer and an heiress to a marmalade company. Olive and her parents are spending time in Spain, and while the home they are staying at is picturesque, the Schloss family finds themselves in a country on the brink of civil war. The Muse deals heavily in themes of rebellion, race, oppression, and desire, and each of these is picked up with the introduction of Teresa and Isaac Robles. The two siblings appear at the Schloss’ vacation estate and make themselves useful in various ways. Through Olive’s developing friendship with Teresa, and growing obsession with Isaac, the reader finds out that Isaac and Olive share a passion for art. Olive had received acceptance to a well-regarded art institute in London but chose to forgo attendance in favor of staying with her parents in Spain. Her father, though deeply involved in the world of art, does not believe that women have a place in that world and thus Olive suppresses her artistic talent.
The two timelines, though vastly different from one another in terms of character and setting, are deeply intertwined as the reader soon finds out that the painting that so startled Marjorie Quick is a painting attributed to the late Isaac Robles. Jessie Burton crafts her novel in such a way that the reader slowly learns the origin story of this painting in the 1936 storyline while Odelle struggles to find the same information in 1967. The reader stays one step ahead of Odelle, but just barely. Sharper minds than mine may be able to catch onto hints as they appear in the text, but I found that many things made more sense upon retrospection. When I finished The Muse, I wanted to immediately pick it up again and start from the beginning to see if I could trace the thread of revelation more quickly upon a second reading.
Burton wholly integrates you into the world of art, both from the artist’s perspective and the collectors. Images in both storylines mirror one another, and unlike some other books with a duel narrative, you feel equally completed and compelled by each timeline. I thought I would miss Odelle when I was with Olive and vice versa, but I felt engaged by, and attached to, each woman and the struggles they were facing. The story is immersive, and the characters are vibrant and alive. It is as if the characters exist in the world around you instead of merely existing in the pages of the book. When you look up from the page, you almost expect them to be there in the room, forming a semi-circle with you at the center, as if they’re telling you the story themselves. Just a small gathering of friends, huddled together in the dying afternoon light, discussing the inception, and subsequent loss, of a prized painting.
Burton has created a carefully woven story that keeps you guessing right till the very end. The Muse is beautiful, both in the language used and, in the message, conveyed by the author through the wonderful personas of her characters. The story detailed in The Muse will stay with you long after the novel itself is finished.
By Jessie Burton
416 pages. 2016.
About Sam Cohen
Sam Cohen is a writer and editor based in New England. She lives with her wonderful partner Caleb, and enjoys learning new languages, drinking lattes, and spending time with her loved ones. Sam is an avid reader who practices yoga and tries to laugh as often as possible. She hopes to be a published author one day. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.