The imaginative boldness that distinguished Jessie Burton’s 2014 debut novel, The Miniaturist, earned her critical raves and an international bestseller: her fans will be eager to know if she can reprise the trick with her follow-up. Having recreated the stiff-necked puritan society of 17th-century Amsterdam in her first book, 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 while she finds her feet and tends to other people’s, selling shoes at Dolcis. The Skelton’s eccentric co-director, Marjorie Quick, spots the young woman’s potential and offers her £10 a week as a typist – riches! Too bad about the gallery’s snitty receptionist Pamela: “She knew no other blacks, she told me on the Thursday of that first week. When I said that I hadn’t known any either by that name till I came here, she looked completely blank.” 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, though on glimpsing the picture Miss Quick looks as though she’s seen a ghost.
The mystery of the painting’s provenance is by degrees unveiled in the novel’s other timeframe, southern Spain in 1936. Nineteen-year-old Olive Schloss has just moved to the big house near the village of Arazuelo with her parents, Viennese art dealer Harold and glamorous mother Sarah – “an English nettle” – whose inheritance from the family condiments business has made her wealthy, if not wise. Olive has, unbeknown to them, turned down the offer of a place at the Slade, either from perversity or a sixth sense that another destiny awaits her. It seems to arrive in the shape of Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, backstairs offspring of the local landowner, who waste no time insinuating themselves into the Schloss household. The suspense lies in whether they mean to help or harm. Teresa, only 16, believes Olive to be a genius of the paintbrush; Isaac, also an artist, is a political agitator seeking funds for a revolution whose inchoate signs the Schloss family prefer to ignore. Between them a plan is hatched to dupe Harold, secure the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim and launch a major new talent on the international art scene.
Burton, juggling the two narratives, sets off chimes and resonances in her double portrait of hidden creativity. Teresa plays midwife to Olive’s talent, while Quick does the same by placing a story of Odelle’s in a prestigious literary magazine, despite the latter’s uncertainty over what her writing is “for”: “I’d been writing for so long for the particular purpose of being approved, that I’d forgotten the genesis of my impulse … this being ‘good’ had come to paralyse my belief that I could write at all.” (These arias of doubt may be related to Burton’s self-confessed crisis of confidence, and depression, following the success of The Miniaturist.) Slowly, themes of possession and identity begin to coalesce as both Olive and Odelle pursue the chimaera of “pure” creativity, a space in which to express their gift free from the toils of obligation and self-consciousness. One also detects an undercurrent of feminist indignation at the old hierarchical assumptions: Harold, in common with many of his kind, refuses to take seriously the idea that a woman, let alone his own daughter, might be a great artist.
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. Of course, every historical novelist must rise to the challenges of the job, one of which is to absorb – and conceal – those reams of research. Sometimes the work done in the library has a tendency to poke through the fabric of the prose, as here: “As far as Olive saw it, this connection of masculinity with creativity had been conjured from the air and been enforced, legitimised and monetised by enough people for whom such a state of affairs was convenient … ” It’s not just the inelegance that jars; it’s the unlikeliness of a young woman circa 1936 thinking in such terms (would anyone back then have used that horrible word “monetised”?). Later, a character remarks, “The sea might be the only reliable way of sourcing food from now on.” I don’t think “source” became a popular verb until the rise to prominence of MasterChef and Waitrose.
The test of making language sound true to period is one even the best writers flunk at some point; anachronism is the sleeping monster of the historical novel. The Muse is strong on the emotional and sensual, less so on the figurative depiction of interior states (“I had to hold in the tsunami of sound I wanted to unleash”). It is a severely competent novel. The craftsmanship is solid, the sincerity of feeling is sustained to the end; none of it is exceptional. Yet who would bet against it selling a million copies like its predecessor?
• Anthony Quinn’s latest novel is Freya (Jonathan Cape). To order The Muse for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
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The Muse by Jessie Burton review – a solid follow-up to The Miniaturist have 1132 words, post on www.theguardian.com at June 25, 2016. This is cached page on VietNam Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.