"I thought London would mean prosperity and welcome. A Renaissance place. Glory and success. I thought leaving for England was the same as stepping out of my house and onto the street, just a slightly colder street where a beti with a brain could live next door to Elizabeth the Queen. ... There's the cold, the wet, the rent, the lack. But – I do try to live." [p. 26]
The protagonist of the London thread is Odelle Bastien, a graduate and a poet who came to London from Trinidad five years earlier, and has been working on the shop floor at Dolcis. She's offered a position as a typist at an upmarket gallery, and is befriended by Marjorie Quick, the co-director, who recognises Odelle's intelligence and believes that she has potential. Odelle, meanwhile, is subject to a great deal of casual racism, and her only friend from home, Cynth, is about to marry, leaving Odelle alone in the flat they shared. At the wedding reception, though, Odelle meets a nice young man -- Lawrie -- and uses her position at the gallery to introduce him to Marjorie: he has a painting he thinks might be worth something.
The painting -- 'Rufina and the Lion' -- is the link (or one of the links) between Odelle's story and that of Olive Schloss, an art dealer's daughter and an artist in her own right, though her parents have no interest in or appreciation of her paintings. Olive is befriended by Teresa and Isaac Robles, a local brother and sister who like her and admire her art: but Isaac (who's also an artist) is a secret revolutionary, hoping to raise funds for a local uprising that the Schloss family believe will never happen.
There is romance in both stories, and betrayal: other themes include issues of identity; a female creator struggling for recognition, and being helped by another woman; the equation of creative satisfaction and personal satisfaction, and whether they are the same; thoughtless prejudice; creative integrity; self-sabotage; social change.
When I read the sample chapters, I wondered if Odelle might end up as someone else's muse, inspiring an artist or a poet: instead, she is the catalyst for the resolution -- inasmuch as it can be resolved -- of Olive's story. Though perhaps Odelle is, in a sense, a muse for Marjorie (who I liked more than the other characters, though (because?) she is irascible and independent and determined).
I haven't yet read Burton's debut novel, The Miniaturist: reading The Muse has edged that novel higher in the virtual TBR pile.