Literary Review

States of the art

The Muse; Jessie Burton, HarperCollins, Rs. 599.

The Muse; Jessie Burton, HarperCollins, Rs. 599.  

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About two women, whose search for a space of pure creativity leads them back to themselves

In Jessie Burton’s second novel, The Muse, two intertwined stories — set in 1930s Spain and 1960s London — lie side by side like reflecting mirrors. In both, there are mysterious paintings, strong bonds between female characters, and a struggle to wrest free from old world orders (patriarchy, colonialism, and more). Yet the past, as we know, lives on, and long lost events continue to shape the present, exerting their influence in quietly devastating ways. At the heart of the novel are two artists — Olive Schloss, a painter, who’s moved from London with her Bohemian parents to a large house outside the village of Arazuelo in Spain; and Odelle Bastien, a young writer, who left her home in Trinidad five years ago for the bright, beckoning lights of London, a city she’d once imagined was like “heaven”.

They’re both also kept away from their artistic ambitions — Olive by her father, a renowned art dealer in Europe, who believes that even though women can paint, they “didn’t make good artists”; and Odelle by an uninspiring job at Dolcis Shoes. “I had bigger things I wanted to do,” she weeps into her pillow, and this comes in the form of a job as a typist at the discreetly lush Skelton Art Institute, where she is spotted by an enigmatic, elegant older woman named Marjorie Quick.

Things trundle along smoothly — Odelle enjoys her quiet hours at the institute, which gives her enough time to write — until her encounter with charming, endearing Lawrie at her friend and flatmate Cynth’s wedding reception. He tells her about a painting, bequeathed to him by his recently dead mother, and brings it along one morning to the institute for it to be examined by an expert eye. Odelle notices that on glimpsing the artwork, Marjorie looks as though she’s seen a ghost. The history of the painting hence becomes the framework through which the novel unfolds — showcasing Burton’s meticulous attention to detail, and her skill, as with her first novel, The Miniaturist, in carefully picking historical detail and smoothly encasing it within fiction.

There isn’t a doubt that Burton spins a good yarn. Her language rests lightly on the page, and she sets up each section carefully, crafting narrative arcs and pauses that would make any MFA instructor happy. Her characters too are drawn mostly true — Sarah, Olive’s devastatingly beautiful, depressive mother; Teresa and her brother Isaac, poor half siblings who come to help at the Schloss household and become deeply, tragically intertwined in their lives; Pamela, Odelle’s receptionist colleague, with her blend of quotidian racism (“She knew no other blacks, she told me…”) yet refreshingly uninhibited outlook on sex. Even Lawrie’s father, who doesn’t appear in more than a chapter or two, is convincing as the bereaved, lost husband, unmoored after his wife’s sudden death.

The plot is nicely paced, and Burton expertly balances the mood and tension of scenes, moving seamlessly from casually pleasant to tight and tense (Marjorie’s garden lunch for Odelle, for example) within the space of a few lines of dialogue. On a larger scale, in the Spain section, she builds an alarmingly fraught atmosphere in the lead up to the Civil War, where the Edenesque environs of the Schloss’ country house are slowly hemmed by increasing violence and bloodshed. Where my admiration mainly lies, though, is in Burton’s treatment of the creative process. It is so easy to overstate, or be self-indulgent here, but she manages to steer clear of either. We see the protagonists, in their own time, wrestle with what it means to be an artist — Olive has turned down an offer at the Slade Art School, finding instead that the luminous landscape around Arazuelo is her muse and tutor. For Odelle, it’s a matter of motivation and readership: “I’d been writing for so long for the particular purpose of being approved, that I’d forgotten the genesis of my impulse… this being ‘good’ had come to paralyse my belief that I could write at all.”

For both, though, their search for a space of “pure” creativity, where they can create without external responsibility or self-consciousness, leads to themselves. The space is within. The muse, their own selves. With a little help, of course, from Teresa, who believes Olive is a genius, and Marjorie, who places a short story by Odelle with a prestigious literary magazine. The lesson here seems to be that a creative life cannot be sustained in the absence of encouragement, compassion, belief.

Larger questions on art history are woven through, with themes of identity and ownership, particularly concerning women artists. We are familiar with the Rosalind Franklins of the science world, but what about women artists who remain unacknowledged? If it’s true about poems, what Virginia Woolf said, that “Anon” was often a woman, it must surely be the same with painting. And art, at large. “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one,” says the novel’s opening quote by John Berger (the author of Ways of Seeing, a work that criticises Western cultural aesthetics), and we know how true this is of the past. Of how women were written in and, more often, written out.

The Muse; Jessie Burton, HarperCollins, Rs. 599

Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse: A Novel and Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories .

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 4:51:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/States-of-the-art/article14630731.ece

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