The Muse

Much like Mrs Peabody, I’m reading some of the best books of 2016 (according to Crimetime). However, even without their helpful list, it would be hard to miss Jessie Burton’s “The Muse” which is everywhere at the moment; I can’t even go to the supermarket without falling over huge piles of the decoratively flowered cover with a crowning motif of crossed revolvers.

I’m not sure I would have categorised this as crime fiction, although it does contain a mystery and a murder, set partly in rural Andalusia at the time of the Spanish Civil War. I think my misgivings come from the extensive reading list at the back. It’s not genre fiction if it comes with homework. An authorial nod to one or two key influences as an afterword, fine, but much beyond that and I start to have that uneasy feeling that my essay is due in by Friday.

However, it seems ungracious to carp when the story has an original set-up, in two time-zones – 1960s London, seen through the eyes of a young girl from Trinidad, Odelle, who wants to be a writer, but takes a job at an art gallery. Her story is contrasted with that of Olive, an English/Austrian girl from 1936, whose Jewish art dealer father has taken his family from Vienna to Spain just as war breaks out. A painting links the two eras, and the central mystery of the book is: what happened to the painter, and how did the painting end up in London? With the hindsight of our own era, knowing the unhappy histories of the 1930s, there is a growing sense of dread as the older tale unfolds.

It’s also a discourse on the role of women as artists, and how they begin, how much the cards are stacked against them by the expectations of society, and the undermining effects of racism, colonialism and poverty. Burton can hold the pace and tension well, and manages not to swamp her characters with worthiness. Her first novel was a big hit, and I’m sure this one will sell by the supermarket trolley-load. Good storytelling, but I won’t be filing it between Allingham and Christie.

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