Starting in the summer of 1967, Odelle Bastien a Trinidadian expat 5 years in London, aspiring writer and current shoe salesgirl, applies on the off chance for a job at the Skelton, an upmarket art gallery. It's the beginning of a period of change in her life, one that sees her finally begin to feel at home in England- new job, the introduction of the enigmatic, glamorous Miss Quick, the gallery director and her best friend and room mate Cynth moving out and getting married. It is at her wedding reception that she meets Lawrence, the producer of the painting which will serve as the historical art whodunnit.
Lawrence brings with him a painting something inherited that may or may not be valuable- a grim, unnerving but beautiful picture of a girl, holding the head of another girl, with a lion. Ms Quick looks like she has seen a ghost and Odelle is immediately curious about what might connect Quick and Lawrence, who profess to have never met before and the painting.
The mystery of the painting and its provenance are gradually unravelled as the story sweeps back to Southern Spain in 1936. Here we meet the moony, romantic teenager Olive Schloss, a secret artist and daughter of a prominent Austrian art dealer (Harold) and a glamorous but mentally ill English socialite mother (Sarah). Olive has turned down a place at art school, perhaps due to a crisis of confidence, perhaps a lack of faith in her future as a female artist- perhaps because she feels that something else is planned for her. Olive's life diverges from her original intentions with the arrival of Isaac Robles and his half sister Theresa. Originally mistaking them for man and wife, Olive learns that they are in fact the children of a local landowner and partial gangster- they are soon integrated fully into the Schloss household, indispensable, essential. Though their intentions are unclear, their influence is palpable.
Olive quickly becomes at home in Spain, encouraged artistically by the enthralled Theresa and politically awakened by fellow artist and political aggressor Isaac, the man that Olive is, incidentally, infatuated with. The coming Civil War and its obvious early warning signals are steadfastly ignored by the Schloss clan. Olive, knowing that she is at risk of being returned to England and in pursuit of a pure creativity free from the burden of acclaim, hatches a plan with the Robles': they will trick art man Harold into securing the patronage of wealthy american collectors to launch Isaac onto the scene.
Juggling the two time periods, the two narratives and the two casts expertly, Jesse Burton paints a picture of the burden of creativity, its hidden rules and the double edged sword of public acclaim. Theresa secretly exposes Olive's talents, while Quick does much the same for Odelle, putting her short story in a literary magazine, also without her knowledge. The success is valuable, but at what cost? The author asks some incredibly complex questions about the creative process- can success extinguish creativity? (With the immense success of the Miniaturist it's not hard to see where this theme might have emerged from!) Does an artist produce for themselves, or for public consumption? When a piece of art/writing/etc is unleashed into the world, does its meaning change? Does the artist ever truly own it after that? What is art actually for?
It's a passionate, fierce novel, filled with themes of identity and creation. The act of expression and the alchemy of painting are explored in a way that is both relateable and very evocative. Both time periods seem to come alive, they are richly written, texture-filled places that are inhabited by entirely real creations- as a reader I felt more drawn to the Spanish narrative not because it was more fully formed, or more realistic, but because the act of painting featured here, an act that seems so vital to the character and to the plot. I loved the detective researcher element of the London story, but the actual act of putting paintbrush to canvas and the feelings released in the process was rendered so fully in this novel. I enjoyed too the not-so-subtle rage-flow of feminist fury at the persistent, even to this day, suggestion that anything produced by a woman is inherently inferior to something produced by a man.
The Muse is a beautifully written and lovingly crafted novel, thoroughly researched so, mercifully, not prone to fall into some of the rookier traps of Historical Fiction. Themes of identity, the elusive nature of creativity and inspiration, love, politics, gender, race and the role, value and purpose of art are combined and gathered into a fascinating mystery, unravelled by a lovable, canny and endearing protagonist- a writer, turned typist turned amateur sleuth. I enjoyed this thoroughly and wish Jessie every success with her next venture and with the TV adaptation of the Miniaturist. That genie is well and truly out of the book bottle now.