Thursday, August 25, 2016

'Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve.' - Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

GoodReads description:

‘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

Monday, August 8, 2016

'Not a horror. But a girl. Just a girl.' - Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

GoodReads Description:

Destined to destroy empires, Mia Covere is only ten years old when she is given her first lesson in death.

Six years later, the child raised in shadows takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day that she lost everything.

But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she is to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal. She must prove herself against the deadliest of friends and enemies, and survive the tutelage of murderers, liars and demons at the heart of a murder cult.

The shadows love her. And they drink her fear. 

The first line lays it out how it is – this book is going to hold nothing back:

‘People often shit themselves when they die, did you know that?’

There will be no holding back.

The first chapter is very cleverly composed, and Kristoff hooks you immediately with his skill. There is a brilliant linguistic and syntactic equation of acts of sex and death in these opening paragraphs. For the reader, they happen simultaneously and simultaneously they are opposites and the same. They echo and mirror each other in so many ways and are contrasted only by alternating italicised and roman paragraphs. Reading these opening scenes is a visceral experience, and incredibly immersive.

The parallels between love and death re-emerge throughout the book. On her way to earn her place at the Red Church, the training school for assassins, Mia meets future fellow-student and friend, Tric. When he sees her fighting for the first time he notes that she and opponent move ‘like first time lovers – hesitant at first, drifting closer until finally they fell into each other’s arms, fists and elbows and knees, block and counters and strikes’. There are sharp moments of foreshadowing and the whole narrative is a puzzle coming together, twisting into a hugely exciting, adrenaline-fuelled conclusion. The final third is impossible to tear yourself away from. In a twisted way, I appreciated and welcomed its brutality. It lures you into a false sense of security and then shatters it, which I felt it was something it really needed to do to avoid falling into certain clich├ęs.

Mia’s full character and past is unveiled to us slowly and in snatches but it is worth the wait and the whole story is better for it. Mia is different to the other assassins-in-training – she is Darkin, and has an intriguing relationship with and degree of power over, shadows. Her constant companion is a very mysterious shadow cat named Mister Kindly. He consumes her fear and helps her sleep through the night – for reasons revealed as you read. I think there is much more to come from him as he is very much an enigma in this first book but their relationship is very unique and one of the more intriguing and different elements of the story. There are many books with training academies, trials, teens set against each other, assassins etc. but Kristoff knows how to write fantasy and he infuses Nevernight with enough other elements – foreshadowing, shocking twists, and stylistic flourishes that it embeds itself in your conscious as you read and remains long after – leaving you wanting more. I’ve pre-ordered the black sprayed-edges edition from Waterstones and look forward to learning more about Mia and Mister Kindly in particular.

Reading a digital ARC, without proper formatting, did make the footnote element of the narrator’s voice a bit disruptive. I’m reserving judgement on the narrative voice until I’ve read more but at this stage it feels an unnecessary extra, ‘telling’ things rather than allowing them to come up naturally in the story. It’s tone is sometimes a little cloying – but reading a finished copy may be a different experience in that regard and I’m sure it’s purpose will be clear further down the line.

I do have one more spoiler-y point to raise for discussion or general musing: I did have qualms about a certain practice in the Red Church (and Mia consenting to it) – and that is essentially the plastic surgery (weaving) they have to go through – to be made physically alluring (bigger breasts etc). In some respects I thought the controversial, more complicated aspects of this were glossed over, as Mia, and even Tric (who initially has reservations) go along with it mostly without comment. In some ways, it’s a shame because Mia is someone initially described as plain, small and scrawny – but someone who has so much power and is so talented that her appearance has never mattered. On the other hand, this could equally be more of a commentary on the morally contentious nature of the Red Church and what it wants to transform people into. It’s something to consider again once the series is finished perhaps.

‘You are luckier than you know. You were born without that which most people prize their loves for. That ridiculous prize called beauty. You know what it is to be overlooked. Know it keenly enough that you paid a boy to love you…’

After all, the Red Church is all about fashioning a new type of being; a complete assassin, and will remake those it needs to. The stakes are high and only the strongest will prevail and be accepted.
  • ‘Forget the girl who had everything. She died when her father did … Nothing is where you start. Own nothing. Know nothing. Be nothing.’
  • ‘It may not be right,’ Aalea said. ‘It may not be just. But this is a world of Senators and Consuls and Luminatii – of republics and cults and institutions built and maintained almost entirely by men. And in it, love is a weapon. Sex is a weapon. Your eyes? Your body? Your smile?’ she shrugged, ‘weapons. And they give you more power than a thousand swords. Open more gates than a thousand war walkers. Love has toppld Kings, Mia. Ended empires. Even broken our poor, sunburned sky.'

I find myself intrigued by this world that Kristoff is weaving and I’m certainly going to read on. I like the darkness, the mystery and the brutality; too many fantasies get bogged down in over-bearing, contrived romance plots and it seems that Kristoff is dodging that trap for the most part. It’s got its own distinct character but has many of the things I enjoy in my favourite fantasies (Throne of Glass, Game of Thrones…) and is certainly unafraid to push the boundaries of your expectations. I respect that Mia is a complex, layered, character who – by her own nature and belief- may be hard to love, and I look forward to learning more about her and her shadow cat (‘who is not a cat’). I want to see this world and mythology grow even more into its own in the sequels to come and anticipate them eagerly. 

Some other choice quotes:

  • 'Listen, girl,’ Aelius sniffed. ‘The books we love, they love us back. And just as we mark our places in the pages, those pages leave their marks on us. Indelible as the ink that graces them. I can see it in you, sure as I see it in me. You’re a daughter of words. A girl with a story to tell.’
  • ‘A few thought her some thing from the abyss; some daemonic servant of the mother set on their trail. Others mistook her for a horror from the Whisperwastes; some monstrosity spat into being by the dark pull of twisted magiks. But as she wove and swayed among them, blades whistling, breath hissing, the swiftest among them realised she wasn’t a daemon. Not a horror. But a girl. Just a girl. And that thought terrified them more than any daemon or horror they could name.’ 

Thank you to HarperVoyager and NetGalley for letting me read a digital ARC in exchange for honest review. Nevernight is published on 11th August.