I’ve seen what success does to people, Isaac, how it separates them from their creative impulse, how it paralyses them. They can’t make anything that isn’t a horrible replica of what came before, because everyone has opinions on who they are and how they should be.
So says the young painter Olive Schloss, whose work is central to this, Jessie Burton's second novel. Unlike a great number of other people, I have not read her hugely bestselling The Miniaturist, so I've got nothing to say about how this one compares to it, though I've read enough to know that Burton herself struggled with the effects of her unexpected success. Anyway, I spotted this one on a list of July releases from Audible and thought it looked interesting - art, and history, and some intriguing mysteries, all sounded like the sort of book I'd enjoy. And I did, though I'm afraid it's not going to be on my list of best books of 2016.
The Muse has one of those dual narratives that seem to be almost de rigeur these days. So we start in late 1960s London and jump back in alternate sections to late 1930s Spain. The two narratives are linked by a painting, created in 1936, which disappears from view and reappears in 1967. The circumstances of its appearance in London are quite strange, and partly owing to a meeting between Odelle Bastien, a young Trinidadian woman who, after five years working in a London shoe shop has got a job in an upmarket art gallery, and Lawrie Scott, who turns out to have inherited the painting from his recently dead mother. When the gallery's co-director Marjorie Quick sees the painting, she goes into a state of inexplicable shock. Although the painting's origins are revealed fairly soon, Quick's connection to it remains a mystery, both to Odelle and to the reader, until almost the end of the novel.
Back in 1936 Spain we meet the artist, who turns out to be a phenomenally talented eighteen-year-old girl called Olive Schloss. Olive, with her art-dealer father and her beautiful, brittle mother, are living in a big old house near the village of Arazuelo in southern Spain. In the village live a young brother and sister, the radical aspiring painter Isaac Robles and his sixteen-year-old sister Theresa, who becomes the family's maid. Olive has been offered a place at the Slade school in London, though her family don't know it - in fact they don't know she paints at all (this seems to stretch credulity a bit, but let's suspend our disbelief here). But one day, by means of a sort of joke played by Theresa, one of Olive's recent paintings is shown to the family as one painted by her brother Isaac. Harold Schloss is overwhelmed by the discovery of a new genius, and Isaac unwillingly allows the deception to go ahead. Soon his work is being sold to Peggy Guggenheim and he is fast becoming an international star. Olive is happy, because she knows her art would never be accepted in the same way if it was known to be the work of a teenage girl.
In many ways this is a story about creativity - Odelle is a writer, very much in secret, and is quite shocked when Quick successfully submits one of her stories for a prestigious literary magazine. She is upset when Quick points out that her work should be made more public - it's her duty, Quick says, a view that Odelle has never taken. Olive, similarly, is happy to keep her identity secret - she loves Isaac, wants him to be successful, doesn't feel the need to claim the work as her own. Isaac, in fact, seems to be the muse of the title -when he ceases to make love to Olive, she is no longer able to paint.
The Muse is a long, complex novel, and one that raises many thought-provoking issues. Both of its time periods are impressively researched and come vividly to life. I was thoroughly absorbed by it, and made extra time for listening, not something I always do with audiobooks. The central mystery - the true identity of Quick - remained unresolved until practically the end, when a useful epilogue finally tied up all the loose ends. I did have some reservations, certain things which I found a little hard to believe, but I was willing to overlook them in the light of the enjoyment of following the twists and turns of both narratives. Jessie Burton is obviously a writer of great imaginative gifts and the ability to create a wholly believable historical matrix to put her stories in. The audiobook was impressively read by Cathy Tyson, who was called upon to do a large variety of accents and managed it pretty well. So, many thanks to Audible for another enjoyable listen.