This dual narrative novel begins in London in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad who works in a shoe shop while nursing the dream of being a writer. When Odelle finds a new job as a typist at the Skelton Institute, an upmarket art gallery, she is encouraged in her ambitions by one of the directors, the enigmatic Marjorie Quick. A newly met friend, Lawrie Scott, appears at the Skelton wanting a valuation of a painting that had belonged to Lawrie’s recently deceased mother. Puzzlingly, Quick seems troubled by the painting which looks to be by a Spanish artist, Isaac Robles. As Odelle and Lawrie explore the mysterious painting’s provenance and Odelle draws closer to Lawrie, Quick seems to be withdrawing.
Set against this is the story of Olive Schloss, living on a rented finca not far from Malaga in 1936 with her father, a wealthy art dealer, and her mother, a British heiress. The nineteen year old is a gauche but developing artist who, although she has been accepted into the Slade School of Art in London, is not recognized by her parents as possessing real talent. When painter and political activist Isaac Robles and his sister, Teresa, come into the Schlosses’ lives, each family member slowly changes from being a transient outsider to having an awareness of and involvement in the lives of the local people during a period of increasing violence. Under the encouragement of Teresa, who now works as a servant of the Schlosses, Olivia begins to paint with an intense inspiration.
The two narratives are intercut while developing in parallel with complexities and mystery increasing as they progress. It is not until near the end of the novel that the threads connecting the two stories become clear.
The major characters are all well drawn and their relationships and motivations realistic and believable. The process of painting and the works created by Olivia are so powerfully described that the reader can see them clearly and I wish that they were real, not the literary creation of a talented writer. Overall the prose is lyrical and the Spanish countryside in particular is vividly brought to life both as a place and as the beginning of the hideous struggle that was the Spanish Civil War. The only quibble I have with The Muse is that there are a handful of moments where the prose slipped into decidedly modern expression (monetised, sourcing, tsunami of sound) and, at one point, Olive’s musings on the struggles of women artists seems to be informed by modern theories. Apart from this, the underlying themes of the novel which include both the struggle for due recognition of women in the creative arts and racism were developed subtly.
This review says that The Muse is almost as good as The Miniaturist. I would disagree, I think The Muse is far, far better. Although The Miniaturist brought 17th century Amsterdam into claustrophobic life, I felt that the plot was too convoluted and, for me, at the end more a literary device than an approximation of life. The Muse could be real life.