Have you ever had this happen with a book, where you read the first, say, five chapters, and you think huh, this is pretty interesting. Then you come back to it the next day maybe, and you read a few more chapters, and suddenly the ante ups by 500 percent and you’re reading well into the night because you must find out what happens next.
That’s “The Muse” by British author Jessie Burton. The story is about Trinidadian Odelle Bastien, who works in London in the 1960s and wants to be a writer. She takes a typist job at an art gallery, where she meets Marjorie Quick, an upper level executive. Marjorie takes a liking to her for mysterious reasons (*coughs*), but the story doesn’t really take off until Odelle meets Lawrie Scott, a young man in possession of a very strange painting. Through Odelle, he brings this painting to Marjorie’s gallery, and, well, things take a major turn.
While Odelle is doing her thing, we catch up with Olive Schloss, an Austrian-British teenager living with her wealthy family in 1930s Spain. Olive’s father, Harold, is in the business of selling art to wealthy people all over Europe and North America, and he’s kind of jerk to his daughter. Harold believes firmly that only men can be true artists – women, he tells his daughter, don’t have the right temperament or whatever to pursue art professionally (and if this sounds familiar to you, well, I urge you to contemplate the state of the world today). Olive, not surprisingly, is very depressed by this attitude and loses her motivation to paint, until she meets Isaac and Teresa Robles, siblings who serve her family’s landlord. Well, mostly Isaac. He’s older and deeply involved with the unions and communist party in Spain, and he’s also tragically poor, which is always romantic.
So Olive paints and paints and paints, and it’s clear even to the unworldly Teresa that she has a special talent. But Olive knows that anything she produces will be dismissed by her sexist father, so she decides to pass off her paintings as Isaac’s, a scheme that he accepts for reasons.
But this is 1930s Spain, and conflict is brewing even in the countryside. Olive and her family have the privilege of neutrality – up until they don’t. The Spanish Civil War takes a while to reach their small town, but when it does the results are catastrophic. Isaac, and by extension Teresa, are targets of Nationalist supporters, and the Schloss family (yes, they’re Jewish), can’t help but feel trapped on a continent that seems to be unraveling before their eyes.
The nature of their escape and the fate of Lawrie’s painting, which is obviously Olive’s wrongly attributed to Isaac, is too much of a spoiler for even me to reveal here. I will say this, the beauty of Burton’s writing is that she gives you just enough to see a few feet ahead on the path, but not quite enough to show you the destination. By the time you’ve reached the inevitable conclusion, the story is effectively complete. All that remains are a few loose ends for Odelle and Marjorie to tie up. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of “The White Lie.”
Burton crafts the story incredibly well. Odelle speaks in Trinidadian English when with her countrywoman friend, but switches to a much more formal, British English when at work or speaking with other characters, a detail that many writers who don’t have that background could easily have missed. She also does not shy away from showing just how Harold’s sexism dooms Olive, and how in turn European fascism dooms them all (to varying degrees).
What she does shy away from is racism. I find it difficult to believe that Odelle faces very little racism in 1960s London. This is barely 30 years after the “Aryan race” was a thing, and yet the worst she gets is impolite waitresses and people “complimenting her” on her English. That’s how racists act now, 70 years after WWII and in a time when racism is much less socially acceptable. I’m also astonished at how willingly she jumps into an interracial relationship. At no point does Odelle ever consider the impact this could have on her, what she might face as a black woman in the company of a white man – and it would have been much worse than a few surprised looks and disapproving tuts. Again, this kind of attitude is much more reflective of race relations today than it is the 1960s. Particularly given the current climate, we need media that clearly says: Racism hurts. Racism ruins lives. Instead, racism in Burton’s world is little more than a mild inconvenience.
“The Muse” is an intense tale. It left me emotionally exhausted and wondering how different things could be if only there was a little less prejudice in the world.