Tag Archives: 1936

Of Cabbages and Kings

the-muse

The Muse: A Novel by Jessie Burton (Ecco, $27.99, 390 pages)

At first glance, The Muse presents as a carefully constructed novel composed of six distinct parts each of which is titled and separated into time frames – set in 1936 and 1967. Upon further examination, the reader might notice that the chapters set in 1936 are numbered sequentially with Roman numerals while the ones set in 1967 are numbered with Arabic numerals. The final chapter is an afterward. Moreover, the last element is a bibliography that attests to the author’s immersion in the lives and events of her characters.

Thoughtful and elegant book design is integral to the experience of the novel contained between its covers. The Muse delights the reader with illustrated pages that define each part. The illustrations are black, white and grey tone depictions of paint on canvas with a type font typical of the 1930s era. They serve as a reminder that the underlying theme of the tale is the convoluted history a work of visual art may have hidden in the daubs of paint applied to the canvas.

Author Jesse Burton has written a most engaging tale about two women of artistic talent who endure deeply emotional journeys for the sake of their work. Odelle Bastien, an emigre to London from Port of Spain, Trinidad is stuck in a dead end job at a shoe store. Odelle and her best friend, Cynthia, have shared a flat for five years. Cynthia encourages Odelle to pursue her gift of writing. The chapters that are narrated by Odelle are set in 1967.

Olive Schloss lives in the bucolic countryside of pre-civil war Spain near Malaga, Southern Spain. Her father, Harold Schloss, is a Jewish art dealer who only sees value in the paintings created by men. Olive yearns for success and acknowledgement as she paints with her heart and soul in the attic of the rented house she, her father and beautiful mother, Sarah, occupy. Their chapters are narrated in the third person and are, of course, set in 1936.

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As each life contains a bit of mystery, so do the lives of Odelle and Olive. Rather than a procedural “whodunit”, this book unfolds organically and weaves back upon itself. Author Burton is in her mid-thirties and by most standards rather young to have crafted such an elegant tale. There’s no need to rush through the pages. The experience is well worth savoring.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Muse was released on July 26, 2016. Jesse Burton is also the author of The Miniaturist, a New York Times bestselling novel.

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Late for the Sky

american music

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Vintage, $15.00, 256 pages)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time, too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”   Jane Mendelsohn

This one  is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.   Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is  one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who we are and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices  during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the theater?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,” Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with  her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his work.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   

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