Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

the muse.jpgI feel the need to say things about The Muse. Some of them are good things; some of them are less good; some of them are things only I would say because nobody else I have ever met is as weird about the Spanish Civil War as me (NB this probably does not include actual Spanish people). Crucially, before I start ranting, I need to point out that it’s A VERY GOOD BOOK and VERY WORTH READING, just so that’s clear and nobody thinks I’m trying to poison the world against it just because I have problems.

The Muse uses a structural style shared by many historical fiction novels, consisting of two narratives in different time frames; one is narrated by Odelle, originally from Trinidad but living in London in 1967, while the other focuses on the Schloss family, newly relocated to southern Spain in 1937. As is usually the case, I found one of these narrative strands far more interesting than the other, and found myself longing for Odelle’s sections to end so I could return to Spain. Confusingly, Odelle switches between the Queen’s English (which is also how it’s narrated) and Caribbean dialect when speaking; I assume this is meant to show that she switches between versions of herself depending on the company, but it is a bit weird to read. There are themes shared between the two timeframes; both involve romance, inevitably, and some idea of being an outsider in a place where you are not entirely welcome or understood. The two strands are linked by a random, serendipitous event; Odelle meets a man who has an unusual painting, believed to be by the fictional Spanish artist Isaac Robles, who is a key figure in the 1930s sections of the novel. Something I always struggle with in novels written like this is the coincidental nature of key events; obviously, the story couldn’t happen without these, but, when an author seems to be aiming for realism, I’m not sure how credible they are.

On the subject of credibility, Burton’s depiction of the developing conflict in Spain, with Republicans fighting Nationalists, is believable; I’ve read a number of novels focused on this period and they have a tendency to squeeze in every notable aspect of the conflict, however geographically improbable (Spain is a pretty big country; it seems unlikely to me that one family could be present at every key event of the war; naming no names, The Return). The Muse does not fall into this trap, focusing on the emerging conflict only through the peripheral viewpoints of Olive Schloss and her friend/maid Teresa, sister of Isaac. As chaos begins to take hold, their helpless fear is effective as a means of showing the reader the unpredictable and terrible nature of war. My issue is not with the presentation of the Civil War in the 1937 sections, but in the parts set in the 1960s; although it isn’t a key factor in Odelle’s narrative, it is mentioned as Isaac Robles’ history is investigated, and it seems odd to me that no mention is made of the fact that the effects of the Spanish Civil War, in terms of Franco’s leadership of the country as a dictatorship, at any point. I’ll admit it; I am a bit of a nerd about this particular era and I am confident that most readers would not notice this or be concerned by it. Those people will just enjoy the book for what it is: an engaging, richly developed mystery, shedding (some) light on two different parts of history.

I bought The Muse in Morrison’s (if you’re not in the UK, it’s a supermarket), in that section of the store where they have half a dozen celebrity biographies, gender stereotyped colouring books and a handful of novels which people are likely to pick up along with their sun cream in preparation for a holiday; while it’s only out in hardback right now and oily, sun-creamed fingers will certainly compromise the beauty of the cover, it’s definitely a good holiday read, especially for someone who is able to actually enjoy books without getting all stressed out about historical accuracy. Not that I know anyone who does that.



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