The Muse by Jessie Burton

This is Jessie Burton’s second novel, following her very successful debut, The Miniaturist. I had one or two problems with The Miniaturist and didn’t fall in love with it the way so many other people seemed to, but I did like it enough to be interested in reading more of her work.

The Muse is split between two different time periods. In 1967, we meet Odelle Bastien, a twenty-six-year-old woman from Trinidad who is looking for work in London. As she settles into her new job as a typist at the Skelton Institute, a prestigious art gallery, Odelle strikes up an unusual friendship with her employer, the glamorous and secretive Marjorie Quick, who encourages her to follow her ambition of becoming a writer. At a party one night Odelle is introduced to Lawrie Scott, who shows her a painting he has inherited from his mother. A few days later he brings it to the Skelton where it causes a great deal of excitement; it seems that Lawrie’s painting could be a lost masterpiece.

To discover the origins of the painting, we have to go back to Spain in 1936 where Austrian art dealer Harold Schloss and his English wife, Sarah, are living in a rented finca – a country house – in a village near Malaga. The couple’s daughter, nineteen-year-old Olive, has ambitions of her own but is keeping her talents hidden knowing that they wouldn’t be appreciated by her father. When local painter and political activist Isaac Robles and his sister Teresa come into her life, Olive has some big decisions to make; this could finally be her chance to follow her dreams.

What is the truth behind the painting once owned by Lawrie Scott’s mother? What really happened to the artist Isaac Robles, whose final fate is unknown? And is Marjorie Quick really who she claims to be? Like The Miniaturist, The Muse has an element of mystery, but unlike the previous book, it is grounded entirely in reality with no hints of the supernatural. I thought the writing style felt quite different too, especially as this one is written in the past tense instead of the present tense of The Miniaturist. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that they could have been written by two different authors, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it’s good to see authors trying something new.

I found both threads of the novel interesting to read. In the 1960s, Odelle gives us some insights into what it’s like to be an immigrant from the Caribbean living in Britain and what it’s like to be black in a predominantly white community. However, I couldn’t help thinking that Odelle herself feels almost superfluous to the story; it’s Lawrie who owns the painting and Marjorie Quick who is connected in some way with the events of 1930s Spain. Usually in this type of novel, the modern day (or relatively modern, in the case of this book) narrator has some kind of personal link with the historical characters, but Odelle doesn’t, which seemed a bit strange to me.

The 1930s storyline is where most of the real action takes place. With Spain on the brink of civil war at that time, Spanish politics form a large part of the story – not just as a backdrop, but with a real significance to the lives of the Schloss and Robles families. A lot of care has obviously gone into creating the Spanish setting – the descriptions feel detailed and vivid – but again, my problem was with the characters. None of them came fully to life for me and I struggled to understand their motives and the decisions they made.

Although there were some aspects of the novel I liked – such as the mystery surrounding Marjorie Quick and the exploration of the struggles faced by women in the worlds of art and literature in years gone by – I think of Jessie Burton’s two novels I probably preferred The Miniaturist.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist In October 1686, eighteen-year-old Petronella (Nella) Oortman travels from Assendelft to Amsterdam to join the household of her new husband, Johannes Brandt. Johannes is a merchant with the VOC – the Dutch East India Company – and spends a lot of time away from home, leaving his young wife in the company of his sister, Marin, and their two servants, Cornelia and Otto. Disappointed with the lack of affection from her husband and confused by Marin’s cold, unwelcoming reception, Nella quickly finds that married life is certainly not what she had hoped and expected it would be.

Unable, for various reasons, to give Nella the attention she deserves, Johannes presents her with a special wedding gift to help her pass the time: a cabinet containing a dolls’ house that resembles the Brandts’ own home. The little rooms are empty and it is up to Nella to decide how to furnish them. Responding to an advertisement by a ‘miniaturist’, she sends a letter with her requests, but when the tiny items and figures begin to arrive, Nella is amazed by how accurately they reflect life within the real Brandt household. How can the miniaturist possibly know so much about Nella and her family?

I was drawn to The Miniaturist by its striking cover and although the book itself didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it was certainly an unusual and intriguing story. I have seen comparisons with Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and it’s easy to see why, as both books tell the story of a young woman living in 17th century Holland, but apart from this I don’t think the two novels really have a lot in common. While I found that Girl with a Pearl Earring felt realistic and true to life, The Miniaturist has an element of magical realism that makes it very different – and this supernatural aspect was possibly the reason why I didn’t love the book as much as I wanted to. I thought the mystery of the miniaturist’s creations was a great idea, but I felt that it was never sufficiently explained or resolved, which left me wondering if I’d missed the point.

I found a lot to like about The Miniaturist, though, particularly the setting – not a common one in historical fiction, but very interesting to read about. I learned a lot about Amsterdam in the 1600s and the world of trade and commerce in which Johannes Brandt and his fellow merchants operate. It’s quite an atmospheric novel too, and a bit darker than I’d expected; bad things happen to some of the characters in the story and not everyone gets a happy ending. Nella herself is a character who grows and changes, from an innocent, nervous young girl at the beginning of the book to a strong, mature woman at the end. And I must mention Marin, secretive and hostile, but with much more depth than is obvious at first.

I had assumed this was a purely fictional story, so I was surprised to find that Petronella Oortman was a real person and her miniature house can be seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. As for the true story behind the house and its contents, who knows?

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley