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Jessie Burton's The Muse: A beautiful story of art and the art of finding the self

Jhinuk Sen | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:37 IST

"The impulse to create begins - often terribly and fearfully - in a tunnel of silence," wrote Adrienne Rich. It's quite a cliché to resort to Rich when you fumble for creativity and hope that the wordless or paint stroke-less silence will eventually result in something radiant. But, there isn't a line that is more true than that as every poet and painter will tell you.

Jessie Burton's The Muse, deals with not one, but two of these creators, both wallowing in a chamber of silence in worlds three decades apart. And then there is that touchstone that sets them free, finally.

A poet and a painter

A writer waiting in the literary wings, Odelle Bastein had come to a 'heaven' called London from Trinidad. Stuck in a terrible job at Dolcis Shoes, on the inside, Odelle becomes that quivering wire that is buzzing with momentum, contained only within bones and skin that London hasn't yet learned to accept entirely.

"There were tears, of course, mainly sobbed into my sagging pillow. The pressure of desire curdled inside me. I was ashamed of it, and yet it defined me. I had bigger things I wanted to do, and I'd done five years of waiting. In the meantime, I wrote revenge poems about the English weather, and lied to my mother that London was heaven."

Odelle wants to write - she just isn't sure who will read.

"I'd been writing for so long for the particular purpose of being approved, that I'd forgotten the genesis of my impulse... this being 'good' had come to paralyse my belief that I could write at all."

This is 1967 London.

In 1936 Spain, a daughter of an art-dealer father, Harold, and glamorous mother, Sarah, Olive Schloss can feel herself dissolving into the earth that surrounds their fancy finca in Arazuelo. Olive paints like a dream, yet she is far too under-confident to present her works to her father - convinced that he will never make much of it. She says that he believes that women "didn't make good artists".

"Do you have a body if there is no one there to touch it? I suppose you do, but sometimes it felt like I didn't. I was just a mind floating around the rooms."

Love will set you free

Two artists stuck in a loop created by their silences, the absence and presence of friends, and the frustrating incapacity to set free the magic inside.

Burton draws out Olive and Odelle side by side as the story progresses. Left quite alone after her flatmate Cynth's wedding, Odelle develops a rather lopsided relationship with a boy called Lawrie. Olive, on the other hand, hurtles down a rabbit hole of love when she sets her eyes on Issac Robles (what do you expect? He's Spanish!).

This love, lopsided or otherwise, is what sets the women on the path that will finally flesh them out and return them to themselves as creators.

Odelle gets Marjorie Quick, the Skelton gallery's eccentric co-director, who takes her under her wing. Olive gets Teresa Robles. Both Marjorie and Teresa act as midwives to their art. Odelle picks up her pen, Olive her brush.

It is female creativity at its finest, Odelle and Olive's connection to their work dissolves the relationship they have with the men in their lives. For Olive, she can't 'paint' without Issac, but he is the key to her magic reaching the world.

"I'm doing the absolute opposite of giving myself away. As far as I'm concerned, I'll be completely visible. If the painting sells, I'll be in Paris, hanging on a wall. If anything, I'm being selfish. It's perfect; all the freedom of creation, with none of the fuss."

"You really are an artist, aren't you? You think it's all about you, and you never stop looking for pain..." Issac lashes out at Olive.

For Odelle, coming to form thirty years later, she knows that the power of creation lies only with the artist. The muse already exists. All the invoking it needs is perhaps some silence and a great friend who thinks you are a magician.

Two stories that tie in beautifully

Burton weaves the story in and out of London and Spain - one city prepares for a great exhibition, while the other braces for civil war. Both the universes are crafted realistically - you'll taste the London smog and feel the Spanish sun burn you.

What ties Odelle and Olive together is one mysterious lady and one painting -

The Muse is one story, and yet it is not. Burton brings it all together with magical craftsmanship. I haven't read The Miniaturist, but now I feel that the sooner I do the better it is.

The Muse, though they have exceedingly little in common, reminds me of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. Tartt's masterpiece has a painting as its supple spine and all the characters weave themselves into form around it. The vital piece of art in The Muse does something similar - it exists in its flawless perfection to allow the characters to draw themselves into perspective around it - Olive, Issac, Teresa, Odelle, Lawrie and Marjorie.

Pick up this book with patience. The storyline zips across decades, but be rest assured that the story, and the revelations, will come to you just when it is meant to. No sooner and no later.

Burton signs off with a haunting thought she makes Odelle pen as she thinks about her now-faded relationship with Lawrie -

"I would have preferred not to have to choose between writing and loving; because for me, they were often the same thing...I loved and I lost love; I found new creativity and a sense of belonging. And something deeper happened, something darker, which we have all gone through - and if we have not, it is waiting for us - the indelible moment when we realise we are alone."

You can almost hear writers, poets and painters everywhere, take in a jagged breath of recognition.

First published: 26 November 2016, 9:17 IST