PIECES OF THE PUZZLE
Jessie Burton delivers another novel born of her passion for art and history
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