Publisher: Picador Publications
Date of Publication: July 2016. Price: 6.99 GBP
Then one day, a stone is hurled- and by accident or design, that stone hits the car window of a powerful idiot who wants revenge, or who wants to impress his mistress, and- whoosh- the foot soldiers move in. The next day, your village is burning down, and because of your stupidity, because of sex, there's a coffin for your bed.”
Educated at Oxford, Burton brought a fresh voice with her debut novel The Miniaturist in 2013 which became a bestseller. She was 33 then. She returned last year with The Muse to tells the story of life guided by chance encounters. Three girls, separated through the distance of thirty odd years, a civil war, a world war, yet tied with the thread of one secret that joins them in a sisterhood of more secrecy.
The first one is Odelle Bastien, a Caribbean immigrant to London of 60s. Dreaming to become a writer, Odelle finds herself working in a shoe store, catering to women's feet which come in various sizes and stinks. Odelle keeps applying for new jobs, and lands as a typist at the prestigious Skelton Gallery. Enter Marjorie Quick, her pretentious yet composed boss.
Miss Quick seems upright and confident, but Odelle slowly gets to know another Quick: a woman totally unsure of her life, her actions, and her decisions: Quick who pushed Odelle to keep writing, seems at a loss when a mysterious painting from the days of the Spanish Civil War is submitted to the Skelton by Odelle's boyfriend Lawrie Scott. The painting is suspected to be by Isaac Robles, a painter lost to the war. It is clear to Odelle that Quick knows more about the painting than she is ready to admit, but little does she realize, until it is too late, that Quick is ready to play with her life to keep her secret intact.
What is Quick's relation with the old painting? What does she know? How did Scott get the Robles painting? It is not before the last few chapters that the reader understands how Quick, Odelle and Olive are connected. There is where the genius of Burton lies. There is a story within a story: Olive's story of love, and Quick's story of life. Burton's gripping storytelling keeps the reader glued to the pages instead of getting confused and bored.
Jessie Burton's writing is vivid. The description of the textures, brush strokes and color application is like one written by an experienced painter. Each of the chapters portray failthfully the inner conflicts of the characters-Odelle's struggle as a writer, Saraa's fight against depression, Teresa's tussle to keep her brother safe. Burton has craftily spread stimulants throughout the text: there are mentions of postcolonial racism (she knew no other blacks…when I replied that I hadn't known any either by that name till I came here, Odelle writes about her English colleague), mental health ( her mind's like a honeycomb, chamber upon chamber, broken, rebuilt again. She sees her pain in colors…it's wretched really, Olive says about her mother), colonial hegemony (Most English people I'd met would ask me questions about the island…none of them had ever been there, so to them we were specimens of curiosity, realities risen from a tropical petridish that until very recently sat under a British flag), the Nazi vandalism of artworks during the Second World War. The impeccable portrayal of Caribbean pronunciations and dialogue style, the picturesque description of the Spanish countryside, the gloomy London environs makes the reader feel part of the story. The little hints of Spanish legends are enough to push a reader to google for details without making the narrative over-informative. The balance between entertainment and education, literature and history is wonderful.
Burton's forte seems to be weaving fiction through historical frames. The Miniaturist portrayed the mysteries of unwanted marriage through Petronella's bedchamber in Medieval Amsterdam. The Muse continues the magic with mistaken identities and the eternal charm of chance encounters that defines the dangerous fatalism we call life. Read her, you won't regret.
The reviewer is a socio-legal analyst and teaches at University of Dhaka.