The Muse


It’s so hot.

Meltingly hot.  Stagnant humid hot.*  The sort of hot that reminds you what all right-minded people knew anyway: that we aren’t SUPPOSED to live in built-up, tarmac-sticky, concreted-over, sun-refracted cities.  We’re supposed to live in leafy green bowers with country breezes.  Or at least I am.  I am supposed to live in barefoot on English grass, with twigs sticking into my thighs when I sit down cross legged.  I am supposed to live with my feet in a clear river stream, looking for trout that aren’t there.  I am supposed to look up through the trees and watch the diamonds of shifting refracted light, not a car, not a plane, not a human in sight.  Surely that’s what my label says?  Sometimes London makes me feel like a wool jumper in the tumble dryer.

All of this has little, if anything, to do with this post’s book, the magnificent The Muse – Jessie Burton’s follow up to much-praised The Miniaturist.  I bought it reluctantly – I only half-enjoyed The Miniaturist – and found it an unexpected pleasure; like a country vista opening up on a city street (ok, I’ll stop now).  But it is a great Summer read: two interweaved twentieth century periods brought to very visual life, with the pleasing variance of Brits in 1930s rural Andalucia to a Trinidadian in 1960s London.  Each is populated by strong characters and stronger storylines, with the dash of hysteria that makes for easy Summer reads: mystery, love, art, theft, war, a dose of tragedy that manages to be literary rather than shocking.

The London section has great observation of the swinging 60s, with parties and cool cars given a fresh look by the perspective of Odelle, newcomer to London, victim of not-so-casual racism, aspiring writer, and general clever-clogs.  Her split between the traditional “white” world of Mayfair art galleries, well-to-do admirer and posh elocution contrasts deliciously with her depressing flat and the patois bantar with her best (and only) friend Cynth.  She serves as an effective foil to the at times rather melodramatic Andalucian tale – all big dark eyes, inspiring extreme landscape, daubs of oil paint, depressive theatrical mothers, innate talent, and political activism.

There’s humour, a dash of glamour, and just enough serious issues to prevent this from flying off into too much fantasy.  It’s a testament to the easy readability of Burton’s writing that this even seems a risk; there’s a touch of the romance (not exclusively in the romantic sense) here that makes the whole thing swing along with the greatest of ease.

The Muse is an interesting concept and Burton pleasingly subverts traditional expectations – this title is ultimately landed on male heads.  What’s more, the whole notion of a passive, pleasing inspiration is problematised – what does that mean for the identity of the Muse?  What if they don’t want to be one?  Does it become more important than the human relationship behind it?  Is it worth more than a human relationship?

But something restricts me from wanting to do too much analytic unpicking.  This is an enjoyable book, a great Summer (or anytime) read, lush with twentieth century detail, peopled by strong, clever female characters, vividly sited in its respective locations, with enough twists, turns and drive to keep you turning those pages.  It reminded me rather of Lucy Foley’s The Book of Lost and Found – another good Summer read for those of you still to holiday.  I said I’d be waiting to see What Burton Did Next, and I’m glad I did – this is a good’un.

* Post written earlier this week when it was indeed that hot.


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