It was not large, and it had no frame. As an image, it was simple and at the same time not easily decipherable- a girl, holding another girl’s severed head in her hands on one side of the painting, and on the other, a lion, sitting on his haunches, not yet springing for the kill. It had the air of a fable. The lower background reminded me of a Renaissance court portrait- that piled-up patchwork of fields all kinds of yellow and green, and what looked like a small white castle- but the sky above was darker and less decorous. There was something nightmarish about its bruised indigoes. The painting gave me an immediate feeling of opposites- the girls against the lion, together in the face of its adversity. But there was a rewarding delicacy beyond its beautiful palette of colours- an elusive element that made it so alluring.
The Muse by Jessie Burton follows the parallel stories of Odelle Bastien, a Trinidadian immigrant in 1960s London and Olive Schloss, the daughter of a Viennese art dealer in 1930s Spain. Each struggle to find a place in their respective societies as young women as they grapple with their futures and the emotions tied up in love and friendship.
Odelle leaves her job as a clerk at a shoe store when she finds gainful employment as a secretary for the prestigious Skeleton Institute of Art. There she meets Marjorie Quick- an obscure woman who quickly bonds with Odelle, providing mentorship and guidance. When Odelle attends a celebration for her dearest friend and former roommate, Cynth, she meets Lawrie Scott- a charming bachelor who hopes to win her heart. In attempt to woo Odelle, Lawrie shows her a painting that was left to him by his recently deceased mother. The profound emotional effect the painting has on Odelle, along with its obviously exceptional artistry lead her to present the painting to her employer. What follows is a harrowing story full of intrigue and surprise that would not be possible without the history in the companion story line.
Olive is an aspiring painter, recently accepted to an art program- both of which are her two biggest secrets. Residing in Spain with her mother and father, she is isolated in large part due to her father’s disinterest in her artistic talent. Seeking love and companionship, Olive quickly becomes friends with Teresa, a young girl who begins to work for her family and her half- brother, Isaac Robles, a handsome, aspiring artist, who is deeply involved in the political turmoil in his native city. Olive is struck by his passion and bravery and naively pursues him. As Teresa’s and Olive’s relationship grows closer Olive feels comfortable enough to show Teresa one of her paintings and what follows is a bittersweet betrayal- a result of unknown differences in expectation and decorum.
“Why do you and your sister think I’m so stupid? Do you know how many artists my father sells? Twenty-five or six, last time I counted. Do you know how many of them are women, Isaac? None. Not one. Women can’t do it, you see. They haven’t got the vision, although last time I checked they have eyes, and hands, and hearts and souls. I’d have lost before I’d even had the chance.”
The dual stories ebb and flow, each portraying the social issues of their respective time periods with finesse. The tension mounts in both instances both equally and separately, each storyline a funhouse mirror reflection of the other- at their core similar issues arise and are subsequently tailored to the characters and history displaying them. At the heart of it all The Muse is a tale of courage, honesty and ambition. We learn that who people claim to be may not reflect their true selves, and that one’s true self my never be fully revealed.
Rufina and the Lion moved me that night in a transcendental way; it was the conduit through which I channeled my sense of loss, of accepting I might never know the truth, but that that was the secret of art.
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