Review: The Muse

The Muse
The Muse by Jessie Burton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d waited a long time to get a library copy of this book and it was worth the wait. The story is a time slip mystery about a complicated tangle of relationships which is kick-started upon the discovery of a long lost painting.

Odelle Bastien is an immigrant from Trinidad in the 1960s when a large wave of immigrants from the Caribbean came over to settle in the UK. This is an interesting choice of protagonist and could easily have been a local who found herself not taken seriously. That latter type of character would probably have worked more strongly for this story. This is a time where women were getting into the mainstream workforce mostly working in lower-skilled roles, but having ambitions to liberate themselves. Added to that layer of sexism, Odelle would have faced racism. Yet both these ‘big issues’ are glossed over for the sake of focussing on the storyline. Therefore Odelle comes across as having an unlikely lucky streak, a sheltered life experience, an easy time of integrating into a new society, finding work, housing and an inter-racial relationship which in those days would have been unheard of. In other words Odelle doesn’t come across as convincing and her life is unrealistic in the historical context she was living in. Her chapters whilst interesting, jarred a bit because of the glossing over of realities that should have been more present in her life. I kept wondering why the character needed to be from the Caribbean at all. Her ethnicity didn’t add anything to the story I felt. She could have been a naive but talented English country girl coming into the big city. Generally Caribbean writers tackle the ‘big issues’ better that this author has done in her book because they’ve been through the ‘big issues’ for themselves and can explain the situations and feelings well, rather than it being a theoretical approach by a writer who may have learned of the issues in an academic fashion. Authenticity will always come across to the reader.

The older part of the time slip is based in Andalucía during the start of the Second World War (1930s) when Spain had its own civil war between extreme right and left factions leaving the country shattered and it’s people in poverty. Into that scene drops in a wealthy German Jewish art dealer family with a daughter who could paint, but could never reveal herself because women painters weren’t taken seriously or their work sold. This family of mother, father and daughter each having their secrets throws light into the toxic fiction of their lives. Not one of them was truthful to the others or got what they needed from the family relationships. So they each sought love from people outside of the family. Consequently it was easy for a local brother and sister to ingratiate and insinuate themselves into the family and shatter the weak bonds. What happens during that time causes repercussions that echo into 1960s London.

Odelle finds herself deeply enmeshed in the mystery when her boss and her boyfriend are connected to what happened in the 1930s German family. She figures out who the real painter is and the actual identities of the people she’s surrounded by.

Another jarring point was the English middle class boyfriend who never looked for work but has to sell his painting and has a Caribbean girlfriend that works in an exclusive art gallery job in 1960s London. Another unrealistic point. There are some loose ends in this book that distract from the story line.

The story line itself is superb as is the story telling. This is a gripping read, suspenseful and well written.
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