I adored The Miniaturist! It was one of those books which had stayed with me: the cold of her repressed Amsterdam, the sweetness of marzipan, the claustrophobic house. The hint of the supernatural. The difficult, prickly bond between the women.
So it was with pleasure and anticipation that I began The Muse and it took a while to be gripped by it. It did grow on me as a reader, but it wasn’t as powerful as immediately powerful and immersive as The Miniaturist.
There are similarities between the two books: both are set in the past, 1960s London and 1930s Spain feel very modern after the Puritanical Amsterdam of the seventeenth century; both deal with outsiders, on this occasion, the immigrant Odelle Bastien from the Caribbean and Olive Schloss entering a new life in Spain; both feature a gap between appearance and reality. Both focus on the relationships between women.
The Muse opens in 1967 as Odelle leaves her somewhat mundane job in Dolcis’ shoe shop – with a parting gift of meeting a toeless woman! – for the opportunity to work as a typist for the Skelton Institute of Art, “a place of pillars and porticoes”. All goes well and a letter from a woman named Marjorie Quick invites her in for a week’s trial. Odelle’s reaction is
£10 a week. At Dolcis, I only got six. Four pounds would make the difference of a world, but it wasn’t even the money. It was that I was a step closer to what I’d been taught were Important Things – culture, history, art. The signature was in thick black ink, the ‘M’ and ‘Q’ extravagant, almost Italianate in grandeur. The letter smelled faintly of a peculiar perfume. It was a bit dog-eared, as if this Marjorie Quick had left it in her handbag for some days before finally deciding to take it to the post.
Goodbye shoe shop, goodbye drudgery. ‘I got it,’ I whispered to my friend. ‘They want me. I blimmin’ got it.’
Cynth screamed and took me in her arms. ‘Yes!’
I let out a sob. ‘You did it. You did it,’ she went on, and I breathed her neck, like air after thunder in Port of Spain. She took the letter and said, ‘What kind of a name is Marjorie Quick?’
At the same time, her friend, Cynth marries Samuel and, at their wedding, Odelle meets Lawrie Scott who shows her a painting that he had just inherited from his mother after her suicide. He later brings the painting to the Skelton in order to find Odelle again. This fortuitous meeting did cast Lawrie into a somewhat suspicious light. How convenient to meet an employee of an art institute as you inherit a piece of art!
There is a delightful joy in Odelle’s narrative voice: a warmth and passion which is a delight to read. It is, therefore, something of a shock as we suddenly get catapulted back to January 1936 and a slightly cooler third person narrative voice. Here, we see Olive Schloss and her parents Sarah and Harold having recently arrived in Arazuelo, Spain, and having Teresa and Issac Robles introduce themselves, the illegitimate and out-of-favour children of the local Don Alphonso, right-hand-man of the Duchess who owns the land. Isaac manages to have Teresa installed as maid in the Schloss’s household and they inveigle themselves into the affections and drudgery of the household. This narrative is much more political with the impending brutality of the Spanish Civil War looming in the background.
The two narratives did not gel well for me initially. I was obviously aware that there was going to be an intricate and carefully integrated entwining but the stories and their voices were just a tad jarring. I was settling into one as it switched to the other and vice versa. Work through that, though because the book deserves it!
The link between the two narratives – and indeed characters – is of course Lawrie’s painting of Rufina and the Lion. As Odelle describes it,
It was not large, and it had no frame. As an image, it was simple and at the same time not easily decipherable – a girl, holding another girl’s severed head in her hands on one side of the painting, and on the other, a lion, sitting on his haunches, not yet springing for the kill. It had the air of a fable.
Despite the slight distortion from the orange street lamp above us, the colours of the lower background reminded me of a Renaissance court portrait – that piled-up patchwork of fields all kinds of yellow and green, and what looked like a small white castle. The sky above was darker and less decorous; there was something nightmarish about its bruised indigoes. The painting gave me an immediate feeling of opposites – the girls against the lion, together in the face of its adversity. But there was a rewarding delicacy beyond its beautiful palette of colours – an elusive element that made it so alluring.
The provenance of the picture is slowly revealed as echoes appear between Odelle and Olive: both are artists, albeit in different mediums; both are encouraged and nurtured by Teresa and Quick, not always securing consent before sending other people’s work out into the wide world; both question the value of pure art, why artists create and what it is to create.
At times the meditations on art were a little clunky, a little too self-conscious – perhaps a little too reflective on Burton’s own concerns on how to follow the success of The Miniaturist – but her strength comes from the sensuality of her language, especially on the Spanish chapters which is gorgeous.
JULY WAS A GOOD MONTH in Arazuelo, and Olive drank it in; the smell of sage fields and rosemary, lizards making their way like small secrets out of the walls, jerky and neurotic in motion, ever wary of predators in the sky. But when they stilled themselves to bask, how poised they were, such pragmatists of nature, soaking up the heat of the sun.
It was a time of long evening shadows, the raw rasp of crickets filling the hot night. The fields were now the shades of parsley, lime and apple. Wildflowers; spattered reds and royal purples, canary-yellow petals moving in the breeze. And when the wind got up, salt tasted on the air. No sound of the sea – but listen, and you could hear the articulated joints of a beetle, trundling through the corn root.
From the hills came the dull music of bells as the goats overtook these smaller sounds descending the scree through the gauze of heat. Bees, drowsing on the fat flower heads, farmers’ voices calling, birdsong arpeggios spritzing from the trees. A summer’s day will make so many sounds, when you yourself remain completely silent. And Olive plunged her own sadness under, succumbing to this aural pleasure.
The final third of the book does sweep the reader along now that we are familiar with the characters and are starting to see hints of hidden agendas, echoes, concealed identities and truths seem to be on the verge of being uncovered.
And it is a testimony to Burton that the gap between 1936 and 1967 seems to be a rich and untapped source of possible adventures for Teresa, Quick and the somewhat distant and mysterious Edmund Reed of the Foreign Office and The Skelton Institute.
Plot and Pace: 🌟🌟🌟🌟
Date: 29th Decemeber 2016