PIECES OF THE PUZ­ZLE

Jessie Bur­ton de­liv­ers an­other novel born of her pas­sion for art and his­tory

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - INSIDE - PHIL BROWN

It makes per­fect sense that British writer Jessie Bur­ton’s sec­ond novel would have some­thing to do with art. That sub­ject mat­ter worked a treat for her with her 2014 best­seller The Minia­tur­ist.

That book, pub­lished in 40 coun­tries, was an un­ex­pected global sen­sa­tion. Set in Am­s­ter­dam in the 17th cen­tury, it was in­spired by wealthy col­lec­tor Petronella Oort­man’s minia­ture dolls at the Ri­jksmu­seum.

Moved to write her book af­ter a visit to that fa­mous repos­i­tory, Bur­ton de­liv­ered a sur­prise lit­er­ary hit.

What to do to fol­low up? An­other book in­spired by her love of art, of course.

Her new novel, The Muse, is set partly in an art mu­seum in Lon­don in 1967 (and then later) with flash­backs to Spain in the mid-to-late 1930s, the time of the Span­ish Civil War.

It’s a tale of love and se­crets and the pro­tag­o­nist, Odelle Bastien, a smart young im­mi­grant from Trinidad, is one of the most en­gag­ing char­ac­ters of re­cent fic­tion.

“I made her West In­dian be­cause I am in­ter­ested in British colo­nial lega­cies,” Bur­ton ex­plains by phone from her home in Lon­don. “And I wanted to write about Lon­don, my home city, and by look­ing at the colo­nial past I am look­ing at where our city came from.”

The com­mer­cial suc­cess of the British cap­i­tal was founded on slavery and ex­ploita­tion of former colonies, af­ter all, she points out.

Bur­ton, 33, is in­ter­ested in art and his­tory, which is why Odelle works at the Skel­ton gallery, a fic­tional Lon­don art mu­seum.

At the Skel­ton, the enig­matic Mar­jorie Quick takes young Odelle into her con­fi­dence and helps her un­lock her po­ten­tial. Quick is a tad mys­te­ri­ous and when a lost mas­ter­piece turns up, the plot thick­ens.

The truth about that paint­ing lies in 1936 and a coun­try house in Spain where Olive Schloss, daugh­ter of a renowned art dealer, is har­bour­ing am­bi­tions of her own. En­ter ris­ing star artist Isaac Robles and his half-sis­ter, Teresa.

Mak­ing con­nec­tions be­tween them and the mas­ter­piece that turns up at the Skel­ton is a puz­zle that Odelle tries to put to­gether.

The story be­gins in Lon­don in 1967, a for­ma­tive year. The Bea­tles re­leased Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Sum­mer of Love was nigh but Eng­land was still grap­pling with its colo­nial past. “That was also the year that Bri­tain stopped im­mi­gra­tion from its colonies,” Bur­ton says. “And the post-war Utopia was fad­ing.”

The other place and time is Spain in the mid-1930s, a time of con­flict.

“The Span­ish Civil War was rag­ing and it is some­times seen as a kind of dress re­hearsal for World War II,” Bur­ton points out.

Bur­ton lived in Spain for a year so the set­ting was “still in my head”, al­though she did take a re­fresher trip to Malaga last year to check her facts.

Her fas­ci­na­tion with paint­ing can, she says, be at­trib­uted to the fact that it is some­thing cre­ative that she sim­ply can­not do. She writes, ob­vi­ously, and is also an ac­com­plished ac­tor who worked with the Royal Na­tional Theatre be­fore be­com­ing a full-time writer.

When she was writ­ing The Minia­tur­ist, Bur­ton was jug­gling act­ing, work­ing as a PA and writ­ing in what­ever time she had left over. Now she has the lux­ury of do­ing it for a liv­ing in the shed at the bot­tom of her For­est Hill gar­den, thanks to The

Minia­tur­ist, the suc­cess of which she is still com­ing to grips with.

“I haven’t got over it yet but I have ac­cepted it,” Bur­ton says. “It was amaz­ing and a bit scary. I don’t think any­one ex­pected a book about a 17th cen­tury Dutch doll’s house to be so suc­cess­ful.”

Now her work is read by fans all over the world.

“I’m huge in Tai­wan,” she says, laugh­ing. “And next year I’m com­ing to Aus­tralia for the first time. I can’t wait.”

Lon­don au­thor Jessie Bur­ton has fol­lowed up hit de­but The Minia­tur­ist with The Muse.

The Muse Pi­cador, $30

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