Book Review #77 – The Muse

Then the birds flew away, their names turned to kisses, a silence to spell a new world – Jessie Burton.

Secrets, betrayal and hidden talents are at the core of this delicately written story which links two passages of time as tightly as knotted rope. The secrets are so buried that you do not even have the slightest hope of discovering them before the magnitude of the situation hits you in the face, at the exact moment of the characters realization too. The betrayals come in all forms – those between family, friends, colleagues and lovers. Some betrayals and secrets are too entwined, too big, to keep in the dark in this book, and some have such enormity and power that makes it impossible to take them to the grave without shedding light to at least one intelligent person.

Such an intelligent person comes in the form of Odelle Bastien. She is a young woman who travelled from Trinidad to London with her best friend to make a better life for herself, to see the world in a new set of eyes. In her heart, she is a writer, but during the 1960s, a black woman in the British capital is faced with such scrutiny that she almost gives up hope on climbing a career ladder of any kind. That is until she meets Marjorie Quick, an enigma in her own right: glamorous, poised, feminine and masculine, stylish and full of a vibrancy that Odelle cannot fathom. Quick employs Odelle as a typist at Skelton gallery, but their relationship grows daily. Somehow, these two women who seem at polar opposites bond in a way that blurs the lines of colleague and confidante. Then, Odelle meets Lawrie Scott, a handsome man who makes her heart skip a little. He, too, has an enigma of his own. It comes in the form of a painting that hung on his mother’s walls for as long as he can remember. With this painting comes a secret history set in 1936 Andalusia, where Olive Schloss, full of huge ambitions and an abundance of creativity, meets two Spaniards – a brother and sister called Isaac and Teresa. In a time when darkness clouds Spain in the Civil War, and the world is on the brink of a war of its own, their relationships fuel the fire that catapults them into a web of lies and deceit, with consequences that nobody could have ever fathomed.

Jessie Burton has created a truly wonderful story, packed with a multitude of characters that are beautiful and poetic, wildly devastating, and strong in their passions and perseverance. None of her protagonists fade into the background because they all have their own story to tell; their own version of events that occur, and their own truths – whether they are honest with themselves or not. For me, the characters that stand out most are Odelle Bastien and Teresa Robles. Odelle is at the heart of the 1960s narrative, playing investigator with the people around her with an innocence that almost overrides her inquisitive mind. She knows her own heart, believes in what is just and right, and so when her imagination gets the better of her, it is exciting to follow her into a darkened room with the thuds of her heartbeat echoing your own. The desire to seek answers makes her a great character, for it is not she who is at the heart of the drama, rather she is a passive character, not knowing what to expect, but wanting to be a part of something much grander… even if she must too keep a secret for many years.

Teresa is similar. She is a sixteen year old who lies through her teeth. Her first lie: she tells the Schloss family she is eighteen. She keeps things hidden in a special place: jewels and pieces of memorabilia that to the naked eye do not seem much. She, too, hopes for a better life than the one she has been given. And yet, she is on the outskirts looking in at the wonder, at the lies, and has been for very much of her life. You do not realise her strength until her final weeks, when she is interrogated about her brother’s whereabouts. And then, in the end, it is her strength that transcends the entire story, making it hard to believe that she is the protagonist that could have been forgotten.

The complexities of the narrative, including the very real history of the Spanish Civil War alongside the realities of Trinidadians in Britain as well as the culture of art itself are woven so delicately into the story that it feels as though this is a true story, coming to life again decades later. Jessie Burton has mastered her research skills and written a story so captivating that I wish Odelle, Teresa, Olive and Isaac were all real people, and that this was truly their history. The way the author deals with many themes and realities in this book are an absolute marvel, and I cannot wait to read The Miniaturist in the not-so-distant future.

Have you read The Muse? What are your thoughts about this wonderful book?

Love, Faye xo

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