The Sunday Times Number One Bestseller and Richard and Judy Book Club selection.
A picture hides a thousand words . . .
On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.
The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .
Historical Fiction is not my usual genre but The Muse caught my eye. Having now decided to start properly reviewing the books I read, I thought it would be good to begin with something on my shelf which was a little out of my comfort zone.
The cover is what initially attracted me to this novel. With such a gorgeous array of colours and the imagery of a typewriter and snakes, amongst other things, it’s hard to not want to find out more. I was also intrigued by the idea of a “secret history” behind a painting and the mystery that it was also believed to be lost. Having an interest in mystery and also one in art when I was growing up, I felt this would be a sound book choice.
The story is juxtaposed between two timelines which works seamlessly. A 1960’s timeline with a focus on Odelle and her navigation of London as a black female, with dreams of being a writer. Newly working in an art gallery, she finds herself meeting Lawrie, who has recently inherited a painting, one her workplace are especially interested in. Alongside this this, the painting’s origins are revealed through 1930’s Spain and focuses on wealthy Olive. A budding artist who has recently turned down the offer of a place at art school, unbeknown to her family. The meeting of Isaac, a fellow artist, and his sister Teresa, appears to be a way to indirectly showcase her talent.
I found Odelle’s narrative especially emotive and I enjoyed her character. She had real depth and I felt her emotions with her. I feel, however, she got lost at times within the story.
With the two narratives, I found that when each chapter closed it always left me eager to discover what happened next. At the same time I also found myself looking forward to discovering the potential explanation or conclusion of something from the previous era’s narrative. The numerous additional threads interwoven through the story provided a diverse sense of ‘past and present’ background information and allowed a strong sense of presence and the feeling of being immersed in the narrative.
The engaging descriptions of the art works and their detailing is fascinating, as is the descriptive nature which is woven throughout. This language is, at times, complex and I found myself having to use google (as a dictionary) to look-up words such as ‘arpeggios’ which slightly deterred from the flow.
I did get lost in the heavy referencing to the Spanish Civil War, but the painstaking research which has clearly taken place is admirable. I did feel at times that this took away from the narrative. It could be as my interests don’t lie within a historical context, but at the same time it did feel oversaturated.
The conclusion was a little predictable but I was left feeling satisfied that it had all rounded itself off without unanswered questions.
Overall I found this a really original storyline and enjoyed the combined narratives and portrayal of characters. The heavy historical theme lost me at times and the conclusion was a little predictable. I am, however, intrigued to read her first novel, The Miniaturist, to see how it compares!