The Muse by Jessie Burton was published in 2016 as a follow-up to her 2014 debut The Miniaturist. It is written from two perspectives, the first being set in London, in 1967. Odelle Bastien is a young woman who is living in London, having arrived from Trinidad 5 years earlier. She has a new job at The Skelton art gallery, which is a refreshing change for her, having hated her previous job, working in a shoe shop. Despite having lived in London for quite some time- it is initially evident that Odelle feels out of place. Unlike the multicultural London we know today, Odelle is discriminated against for the colour of her skin, in a place she calls home.
The other narrative is set in Southern Spain in 1936. Olive Schloss is a nineteen-year-old girl with not only Odelle’s love of art, but great artistic talent. She has been accepted to a prestigious art school in London but keeps the acceptance letter hidden from her parents. Her mother’s depression and her father’s long, frequent absences from the family home, make the idea of leaving them, an impossibility for Olive. However, the underlying and more poignant reason for her declining the opportunity of a lifetime is that ultimately, she doubts her abilities as an artist. Similarly, Odelle, an aspiring writer, is uncertain about her own talent until she meets Marjorie Quick, her new boss at The Skelton art gallery. ‘Quick’ by which she likes to be addressed, submits one of Odelle’s poems without her knowledge and it is published in a magazine. Olive’s own work is also eventually made famous.
The novel addresses the harsh but real issues that women, particularly women of colour, faced at the time the novel is set and still face today. Olive struggles throughout the novel with the idea that it is far easier for a man to become a successful artist than a woman, while Odelle suffers from blatant racism on a day-to-day basis. Burton creates two culturally rich and realistic viewpoints and keeps the reader engaged by only revealing the link between the two, at the very end. The message imminent throughout the novel, embodies the idea that women can do whatever they put their minds to- and this is extremely relevant in today’s culture with such movements as This Girl Can, Time’s Up and Me Too.
Overall, I would thoroughly recommend picking up a copy of this novel. The talent that is Jessie Burton’s excellent writing, combined with the emotive and unique subject matter make it impossible to put down and the story really stays with you for a long time after you finish it.