Have patience, good things come to those who wait. Yes, yes we know these things to be true but that doesn’t make the waiting easier does it?! Like a child (or me, fully grown as I am) on Christmas Eve tucking up in bed or a dog hearing the keys of their owner turn in the front door as they return home, excitement will bubble away until at last, the moment has arrived and you can revel in it. It is with no exaggeration when I say that I waited for the new book from Jessie Burton with anticipation just like this. Anybody who has been in my vicinity will know of my love for her first book, The Miniaturist, and in work it became something of a running joke that the moment somebody requested a great read I would pop up from around a corner, pushing a copy towards them. A little while ago I was shelving away in work, lost in my own thoughts, when my colleague Naomi called my name and said ‘some post has arrived for you that I think may make you very happy’. In seconds I had ‘The Muse’ in my hands and was working out how long I had left in my working day so I could go home and get stuck in.
A book with two stories running parallel to each other, we go from Spain in the 1930’s to London in the swinging 60’s. Two stories with two women, both with talents that deserve to be shouted from the roof tops but are currently being muted due to the circumstances they find themselves in. Will these women find their way to the recognition they deserve and how will their two stories work their waytowards each other? Readers are in for a treat as they turn the pages to find out.
We meet Odelle, a Caribean immigrant who has moved to London with dreams held by her family as well as herself to make it as a writer. Lacking in self confidence she needs the encouragement of her dear friend to believe in her ability. A move from her job in a shoe shop to a major art gallery in London brings a certain Majorie Quick into her life, possibly my favourite character in the book, reminding me of one of Muriel Sparks sharply observed women, and with this meeting a new world with many unanswered questions opens up to her.
We then skip back in time to Spain, political turmoil thickening the air around those who live there. An impressionable young woman, Olive Schloss, is living in a large rented home with her parents. Of Austrian descent they have arrived over in Spain to take a break from their hectic London lives, her father busy dealing art and her mother being part social butterfly and part social recluse when problems with her nerves appear. Neither seem like the easiest of parents to live with and Olive is hit with a breath of fresh air when one day brother and sister, Isaac and Teresa Robles, turn up to greet the family and ask for potential employment. Olive soon crosses the expected boundaries between herself and the pair. Before she knows it is finding herself in dangerous situations she could not have dreamed of just a year earlier.
You know as the reader that these two stories will eventually be woven together and it is apparent early on that the meeting point will be found within art, but the big questions of ‘who, what, where, when and why??!’ are always at the forefront of your mind. The novel is paced perfectly with answers being found gradually along the way. In both time settings the period detail is spot on and the descriptive writing makes each location wholly evocative of the time. The stirrings of Civil War and racism towards immigrants are both sensitive, stirring topics written about assuredly. Burton seems to have hit a confident stride and I found one moment in the book very touching, one of our young women thinks over what it is to be an artist/writer, with expectations placed on you (by yourself, fanily, friends and the public) and the confidence required to put your work out there for the world to then see. It felt like Burton was addressing the pressure approaching her second novel after the huge success of The Miniaturst and the passage was all the more powerful as it felt so raw, moving and honest.
There is always the fear of ‘second album syndrome’ and it must be a terrible thing to have weighing down on your shoulders, but despite these pressures Burton has more than risen to the challenge, proving she is a writer we have safely put our confidence in and securing her place on the literary landscape. Guess I’m going to have start my countdown clock for book three now right?!
Get your hands on it quick so you can join in all the excitement that is going to surround this corker of a novel.
The Muse by Jessie Burton £12.99 (Picador)