Friday 19 January 2018

Gripping follow-up does not disappoint

Fiction: The Muse, Jessie Burton, Picador, hdbk, 464 pages, €16.99

Phenomenon: Jessie Burton's debut sparked a fierce bidding war among publishers.
Phenomenon: Jessie Burton's debut sparked a fierce bidding war among publishers.
The Muse by Jessie Burton.

Tanya Sweeney

'Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve," writes Jessie Burton, kick-starting with élan the follow-up to her phenomenal debut The Miniaturist. And from her debut, which was set in 17th-century Amsterdam, Burton has moved forwards in time with two different backdrops: the Spanish Civil War, and London in 1967. At the heart of the story, instead of a doll's house, there lies a long-lost painting with an intriguing story of its own.

Odelle is a hard-working young Caribbean émigré in London, poised to leave her job in a high-street shoe shop to take on a role in a gallery with the formidable and eccentric Marjorie Quick. They make a curious pairing, and it's not long before Odelle finds her feet, unlocking a confidence and talent for writing unbeknown even to herself. A masterpiece rumoured to be the work of Isaac Robles, a shining art-world star whose life was cut mysteriously short, is delivered to the gallery. The man who presents the painting is someone Odelle has met only days previously at a wedding, discussing the painting left to him in his mother's will. The arrival of the painting to the gallery triggers a complex chain of events, to a point where no one is quite who they seem.

In Malaga, and 30 years previously, Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa wander into a rural, restless idyll where Olive Schloss, the teenage daughter of a Viennese Jewish art dealer and frustrated English heiress, is staying. Robles is a frustrated artist harbouring dreams of success (and plenty of anti-fascist sentiment).

Olive, too, has creative ambitions of her own, having recently been accepted into art school in London. The three create a bizarre bond, sharing artworks in secret until Olive's mother, Sarah, commissions Isaac to paint her and Olive. What follows is a turn of events no character sees coming.

The parallels between both worlds are plentiful: both Odelle and Olive are ambitious, yet hobbled (the former by her provenance, the latter by her stifling parents). Where Odelle believes that London is brimful of dreams and opportunity, Olive, too, is enlivened by her surroundings.

Whether Burton places her characters in the 17th or 20th Century is moot. They are spirited and relatable to contemporary-fiction fans in a way that several historical characters often aren't. Wherever they may be in the world or in history, Burton is adept at taking the emotional temperature of her heroes.

Yet it's her writing, assured and inspired, that really is the thing. Sentences teem with vivid descriptions and an assured, easy cadence. Hers is the sort of prose that is natural and deceptively simple, carrying in it enchanting characters and dramatic backdrops. Even Burton's descriptions of paintings - "a lion, sitting on its hunches, not yet springing for the kill… it had the air of a fable" - are somehow packed with feeling and luscious colour. Yet for all its rich and highly buffed prose, The Muse is a pacey and accessible read.

It's one thing to write descriptively, but Burton is also skilled in the fine art of keeping the reader guessing. The link between the two plots is taut, left dangling just out of reach from the reader for much of the book: just when you think you have it all figured out, Burton tosses in a care-free twist, making for a hugely satisfying ending.

Burton has cast aside any notions of the difficult second novel, proving that her supremely successful debut novel - the subject of an intense bidding war at the London Book Fair - was no flash in the pan. If anything, her voice has become ever more assured. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Burton's supremely successful debut, The Muse is a thing of beauty all on its own.

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