I can’t exactly remember how I felt about The Muse before its release. Everyone was waiting excitedly for it, and while I was enthusiastic, I didn’t feel it was with as much intensity compared to those who have read The Miniaturist. I admit I haven’t read that one; I missed the month when we read it for book club, and the comments were quite divisive that I did not feel particularly keen to find out which side of the debate I’d fall.
I got a hold of the The Muse before the official release day though, and I was sucked right in in just a few pages. The narration starts in 1967, with a young Trinidadian immigrant named Odelle who is struggling to keep afloat in London working as a salesgirl in a shoe shop, while trying to keep her creativity alive and thriving. It was mostly an unproductive grind until she gets a job as a typist at an art institute, and into the orbit of the mysterious Marjorie Quick.
The novel jumps between two time periods — 1960s London, as previously mentioned, and 1930s in Andalucia, where the Schloss family has retired to a finca to escape the bustle of the city of London due to the mother’s “illness”. The centre of this period’s narrative is Olive, a young girl who is a skilled albeit informally trained painter, who hides her talent from her art dealer father, who is of the opinion that women cannot be good artists. Featured along them are Teresa and Isaac Robles, a brother-and-sister pair living in the village, and they become essential characters in the lives of the Schlosses.
So what is this book about? Allow me to tell you in a roundabout way: I was lucky to be able to attend the event organised by Waterstones Hampstead on the book’s publication day, where I got to hear Jessie Burton talk about this latest book of hers. In reply to the same question, Burton describes the main characters, the enigma indirectly posed to Odelle by the character of Marjorie Quick and this lost Robles painting, and then to summarise, lists the different elements in it: art, creativity, mystery, love, war, betrayal. It’s all crammed in there, but it all fits beautifully, and I did not find any of it detrimental to the plot.
Burton was candid about her struggle in writing this second book, and the resulting depression she had due to pressure and expectations that she felt was upon her because of the great success of her first novel. Wrapped in all the wonderful plot elements and how she drove the story, I love that what I took away in the end is that whatever an artist creates, whatever medium they choose to express themselves, they should not be consumed by fretting over how it will be received by the public, or else this impedes on any future endeavours. Create it, release it, and let it be.
I don’t fancy myself having any talent for writing (this is all a hobby!), but I do put a lot of effort in maintaining this, and especially my bookish Instagram account. It can get exhausting, and I can imagine it’ll be more so if I start taking into account the amount of Instagram likes and comments my images get, or how many people visit my site and whether they’ll like what I put on here. I’m not on the level of these published writers or famous artists or photographers, but the message in The Muse still resonates with me, and I was heartened to read that message and have that reminder.
“Like most artists, everything I produced was connected to who I was — and so I suffered according to how my work was received.”
“When I began receiving public acknowledgment for a private act, something was essentially lost. My writing became the axis upon which all my identity and happiness hinged. It was now outward-looking, a self-conscious performance.”
“I’d been writing for so long for the particular purpose of being approved that I’d forgotten the genesis of impulse; unbothered, pure creation, existing outside the parameters of success and failure.”
– Jessie Burton, The Muse
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Let’s have a chat!
How much do you agree with the message about “detaching one’s personal value from one’s public output” to continue creating? When you’ve struggled to create something, do you reckon it is mostly borne from fear that it won’t be good and liked by people? How did you manage to get over this hump, and what would you advise other artists regarding this?