‘A picture hides a thousand words . . .
On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn't know she had, she remains a mystery - no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.
The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .’
I appreciated Jessie Burton’s award-winning, bestselling The Miniaturist. I spent a Christmas hand-selling it at Waterstones and it was a well-written, well-crafted novel. But I loved The Muse. I engaged with it and its characters, heart and mind. They’re both great books, but The Muse is the one I’d go back to and the one that personally hit the spot. It had me from the selected quote before the story even began:
‘Never again will a single story be sold as though it were the only one.’ – John Berger
This is an epigraph which has been used in many well-known, acclaimed novels – it seems to have a track record of success of its own. John Berger is understandably part of most undergraduate studies in literature but it’s a quote that has so much resonance in so many fields of study, and life. At my university, we were shown Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the ‘Danger of a Single Story’ – and I’ve mentioned it before on this blog.
Jessie Burton’s The Muse certainly draws upon this idea of the single story – about the different ways things can be perceived, the way that different angles can convey different meanings, and the way that narratives can be controlled to include and exclude. It is, at its heart, about art in all its senses and incarnations – about responsibility, representation, power, dignity and consent:
‘It doesn’t matter what’s the truth; what people believe becomes the truth.’
Burton’s parallel narratives depict two women in different eras, both talented and creative, and yet both – partly because of circumstance, and partly by choice – hiding their gifts or holding back. Originally from Trinidad, Odelle Bastien (1960s) still feels an outsider- she explains:
‘I was – both by circumstance and nature – a migrant in this world, and my lived experience had long become a state of mind’
Burton navigates these angles of migration and ethnicity sensitively and thoughtfully, exploring how it feels to be away from your country of birth and trying to forge an identity in a place where – whether by virtue of gender or race – you may not be taken so seriously, and may feel compelled to hide away.
Marjorie Quick becomes a sort of mentor, as well as employer, eager to unlock Odelle’s talents and encourage them. Back in the 1930s, a young woman named Teresa seeks to do the same for Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art collector (also living away from home, in Spain) who paints secretly and brilliantly (better than Teresa’s artist half-brother, Isaac). The parallels and the way in which Burton toys with the seams of both stories and characters is delightful and utterly compelling. Each tiny twist seems to raise the stakes until the simple truth becomes the ultimate and most quietly devastating prize.
The dynamic between all the characters held me captivated. Like Odelle, I was fascinated by the enigmatic nature of Marjorie Quick and I loved that the bonds between women – between Odelle and Marjorie, and Olive and Teresa - are the most complex and intriguing. Both go beyond the connections that Odelle and Olive feel to the men in their lives and endure in a much stronger and more meaningful way.
The Muse is a book that is so cleverly layered that I feel I want to reread it again and again and to look at these characters from all angles. For now, these are just a few introductory thoughts on a novel I admire more each time I think about it.
Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ TED talk quotes:
- ‘I realised that I had become so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.’
- ‘So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become’.
- ‘There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.’
- ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’
The Muse quotes:
- ‘Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.’
- ‘This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play.’
- ‘That if you really want to see your work to completion, you have to desire it more than you’d believe you have to fight it, fight yourself. It’s not easy.’
- ‘It doesn’t matter what’s the truth; what people believe becomes the truth.’
- ‘In the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being’
*Thank you to Picador and NetGalley for the chance to read an ARC of The Muse.