Muse – Jessie Burton

Trinidad seems like a paradise on earth, but a girl who would want something more for herself besides the fate of a mother and a housewife would have to start life elsewhere.

So, dreaming of becoming a writer, Odelle Bastien came to London in the early 1960s and got a job as a shoe saleswomen, never ceasing to lurk the convenient opportunity to leave the job behind.

And what does an artist need? Those little more experienced would say – tools, materials and rolled up sleeves. Those a little more romantic would answer – muse.

For a writer in her infancy, a nice story full of secrets and intrigues and intricate fates, a handful of unusual characters, and a time devoted solely to creation would be welcome. That’s something that Odelle Bastien will be banging her head on, she thinks, one day when she gets herself some serious work.

She didn’t expect much when she applied for an job ad at the Skelton Art Institute that was looking for a typist; although no one showed open hostility toward the dark-skinned settlers, Odelle and her best friend Cynth still knew how to feel the views of fellow citizens that were difficult to describe as perfectly normal.

But the elegant and self-effacing Marjorie Quick informed her that the job was hers and thereby launch some kind of wheel in space that will make the secret, which has been inadvertently hidden for over 30 years to float to the surface, changing the lives of all those involved in its discovery. Or hiding.

Thirty-one years earlier, in the south of Spain, Olive Schloss clutched a letter in her dress pocket that she had received two weeks earlier and which, she decided, would never show to her parents. It doesn’t even matter anymore; she is now far from London and the Slade Art Academy. Her parents had not known for many years that Olive was still painting, let alone applying to the academy, and especially they were not aware of the fact that she had been admitted…

A closed mouth brought her here, a godforsaken place, where her beautiful mother was supposed to recover from her mental difficulties.

After all, her father had always said that women couldn’t be good painters, and Mr. Schloss knew what he was saying. He gained all the wealth and reputation he enjoyed by marrying and discovering new European painting talents.

Nineteen-year-old Olive had already decided to put her hands and mind into editing the Spanish finca and her surroundings when a brother and sister walked in through the front door, unaware that they were bringing with them the promise of magnificent artistic moments, but also of dangerous, devastating secrets.

It only took a few days in the company of the unusually loyal Teresa and the unusual Isaac Robles to make Olive feel that she had found something, or someone, that made her become what she had always dreamed of being. Once started, this transformation seemed unable to stop; she became more and more frantic and furious. He was everything that an artistic soul could only dream of.

At least Olive Schloss was convinced. Teresa, his sister, trying to reassure her and break the dangerous fantasy that Olive began to interfere with, in loyalty did something brave – and unforgivable.

Will thirty years later Odelle Bastien be able to reconstruct the truth behind the most famous paintings of the controversial Spanish painter, Isaac Robles?

I had no hope that any new book from Jessie Burton’s pen could surpass the “The Miniaturist”,well, it happened. Moreover, I did not expect that Jessie Burton, as much as her talent was perfectly evident from the popular debut, could write anything else.

But, it did. And quite quickly, actually. So fast that I was really surprised how GOOD she made it. Jessie Burton seems to possess one talent that, when reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s fiction, I began to appreciate greatly – diligence in exploring the political, historical and cultural circumstances of the place and time in which she would place the characters of her stories. It is for this reason that the worlds she describes – first cold Amsterdam and now sunny southern Spain – are so rich in detail and masterfully evocative, that the reader really moves to another place, another time.

The odd fates and fateful secrets of ordinary people seem to be Burton’s other strengths. Although I resented it for the fact that at the end of “The Miniaturist” she actually left us deprived for the life story of a more intriguing character, I think that in a way, readers have been fairly redeemed in this book. Phenomenal, original characters are not missing!

However, it is only reading the interview and author’s blog learns about the circumstances of this book that he or she is able to truly understand the topic the author was writing about, as well as to recognize in the text the doubts that made her, as an artist, crucify her.
Because, you see, the “The Miniaturist” happened to her. Jessie Burton has previously written as anyone who feels the unyielding compulsion to create – to write, paint, model, harmonize – in a world that is protected from expectations and judgment. For herself, for pleasure.

As the author says in her blog, but also indirectly in the book itself, through the character of the painter Olive Schloss, anonymity gives the artist a safe nest in which he can freely release his own creativity; it can try everything, it can make mistakes, it can start anew numerous times. No deadlines, no expectations, no assessment. In such an environment, a work of art has the privilege of taking on any free form; the reception of what is created is irrelevant.

And then the fame happens. And the artwork – in fact the whole process of creation – trips out of the artist’s control.

This is exactly what happened to Jessie Burton with “The Miniaturist”.

People liked it. People enjoyed what she created in privacy, guided only by her own rules, completely to her own satisfaction. They invited her to promotions and gatherings and festivals and interviews; they asked her about her creation process. From the mouth of Odella Bastien herself, Jessie speaks about herself when she says, “When I began to receive public acknowledgment for a private act, something was essentially lost.”

Now people began to expect her to continue doing what she was doing, but for their pleasure. I admit that this is what I ask from the author when I say: “This is great! This is beautiful! Give me more of this! And again and again and again! ”

At one point, writes Jessie Burton on her blog, all of this became too much for her; she began to sink rapidly into a serious depression, for which she soon sought professional help.

We who have never experienced such a depth of dedication to creation and such a height of fame can hardly understand the price that fame charges from artists. Somehow, we think that the only artist charges from the world for his work once he becomes famous. An expensive misconception, it seems.

With this in mind, it becomes clearer to readers what Jessie Burton has invested in this book and what a clever – in addition to being well written – piece of text she put into our hands.

The enthusiasm for this book is accompanied by a deep gratitude to the author for her courage to persist in writing and to return to her safe place, where she will hopefully find a way to make herself happy with her creative work, and then, if she so chooses, the rest of us.

She herself wrote in her blog that the experience of fame, however distressing for her, brought about feelings she had never experienced before and admits that for any artist these feelings are very addictive. As the author herself says on the blog and in this book, you experience what it means to meet your muse, but also what it means to become someone’s muse. Both experiences are very, very intense.

The problem is that many who create in the privacy of their homes fantasize about their Five Minutes, but do not expect to ever experience it, not to such an extent. It is to be expected then that once they happen, they find the artist completely unprepared, so the experience can be devastating and exhausting. An artist may lose track of who he is and why he started creating. Yet, as soon as they recover, they will want to do everything again.

I am glad that Jessie indulge in gambling with fate and kept writing. I truly hoped she would. What I did know after reading “The Miniaturist” was that I will definitely continue to gamble and risk buying all of her next titles, if she published any more.

If you decide to reach out to this book, I’m free to say, you don’t gamble at all; if you want to read something exciting and excellently written, you are playing it safe by choosing “Muse”.

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