‘The Muse’ by Jessie Burton
Jessie Burton’s back, people!
Some of Literary Transgression’s more loyal readers may recall my, ahem, lukewarm reaction to her, shall we say, disappointing The Miniaturist back in 2014. There was a lot of hype surrounding that book and, in the end, a lot of misplaced expectations. After reading it, I was actively irritated and very nearly swore never to read Jessie Burton again.
Despite that fiasco, however, I decided to give her a second try when this beautiful piece of Library Loot came my way.
I’m sorry, I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but look at this one! Gorgeous! Lisa Perrin, the artist behind this beauty, may already have The Peter Mendelsund Award for Best Cover 2017 locked up!
(And if you love this cover as much as I do, you can read about how it came to be over at Picador!)
I am happy to report that my leap of faith was well worth it; in The Muse, Jessie Burton seems to have finally lived up the high expectations thrust upon her during The Miniaturist frenzy three years ago.
Taking place in 1960s London and late-1930s Spain, The Muse ostensibly tells the story of a single painting, unwinding its mysterious provenance through the two complimentary narrative threads. This surface story is very well done — Burton flawlessly reveals just enough in each time period to slowly bring the full picture (if you’ll forgive the pun) into focus, finally revealing all at the very end.
Beneath the story, though, are interesting explorations of the importance of art, the role of women in the artistic community, and the role identity plays throughout one life. Characters in each time period variously struggle with their gender, their race, and their place in society and, ultimately, they choose to disappear, assume a different identity, or live with an unsatisfying reality.
I had minor qualms with the book — mostly related to my ongoing aversion to dialects in the written word, although Burton uses dialects really interestingly here — but by and large, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Muse.
As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been struggling to read since the US election last fall and Jessie Burton’s The Muse is one of the first books I’ve raced through and stayed up late to keep reading in a long time. This book is stimulating and engaging, urging you to consider new perspectives and explore unfamiliar parts of history. In short: forget The Miniaturist; The Muse is where Jessie Burton shines.