Tuesday 20 March 2018

Second act for actress turned bestseller

Fiction: The Muse, Jessie Burton, Picador, €15.35

Jessie Burton had a hard act to follow after the huge success of her first novel The Miniaturist.
Jessie Burton had a hard act to follow after the huge success of her first novel The Miniaturist.

Claire Coughlan

Jessie Burton's debut novel of two years ago, The Miniaturist, had an unusual premise. It was set in 1686, in Amsterdam, and followed Nella Oortman, the new wife of merchant trader Johannes Brandt, who presented her with a doll's house size replica of their home, furnished by a mysterious miniaturist whose creations began to echo the Brandts' lives in surprising ways.

The Miniaturist sold over a million copies and was published in 36 languages. It won a host of awards and prizes, including Waterstones Book of the Year 2014 and the National Book Awards Overall Book of the Year 2014.

The weight of expectation to deliver an equally momentum-gathering follow up must have been heavy and Burton has written about the pressures of her apparent overnight success, which changed her circumstances utterly.

She went from working as a personal assistant in London's financial district and being a jobbing actress, to bona fide literary superstar.

She said: "I have broken down, and now I am breaking open," referring to the personal aftermath of The Miniaturist's unprecedented success. "Over a million people bought my first novel, the TV rights were optioned, Martin Scorsese put it onto his Kindle, a Spice Girl tweeted about loving it, Vogue asked me to pose for a portrait. I was invited on a private visit to the studio of my most favourite living painter, I travelled the world, and heard from readers in all its corners."

Burton also wrote of her personal struggles: "Last year - when so many changes had taken place in my life in such a short space of time, when I was supposed to be the most powerful and 'happy' I'd ever been, and when I was faced with the challenge of completing another novel, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression."

The Muse, Burton's second novel, is set between London, 1967, where Odelle, a Trinidadian typist for an art gallery, the Skelton Institute, discovers a lost masterpiece with a secret history; and rural Spain in 1936, when Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, meets artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, whose involvement with the Schloss family has far reaching consequences.

Burton is clearly a writer of considerable talent and there is plenty to enjoy here, from the depiction of an immigrant's adjustment to life in London in the 1960s and the racial discrimination that Odelle encounters, to the precision and depth of the description of the unusual painting itself; to the evocation of Andalusia in the 1930s and the civil unrest seething beneath the surface there.

The danger about having the story cleft into two settings and narrators is that the propensity exists for the reader to find one more engaging over the other. Personally, I thought Odelle's sections were stronger and more vivid than Olive's. This could be because of the use of the first person voice for Odelle's character, allowing the reader access to the character's inner thoughts and observations, which I generally tend to veer more towards as a reader.

The Muse is a notable body of work, perfect for art-lovers and the art-curious alike. Anyone who enjoyed The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is sure to savour Burton's substantial novel. An impressive second act.

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