A thrilling painting with a mysterious provenance connects two bold young women, one in Civil War Spain, the other in mid-1960s England.
British writer Burton (The Miniaturist, 2014) won multiple awards for her first book, an unusual historical novel set in 17th-century Amsterdam, and returns to themes of intrigue, creativity, and female empowerment in her second. The narrator of the 1967 storyline is Odelle Bastien, a Trinidadian immigrant and aspiring writer trying to find her way in London, where racism is more common than job opportunities for bright young black women. But life picks up after Odelle finds work at the Skelton Institute of Art and also meets Lawrie Scott, whose mother recently died, leaving him an unusual painting signed with the initials I.R. In the parallel 1936 storyline, the setting is Andalusia, where the wealthy, art-dealing Schloss family, originally from Vienna, has settled temporarily. Nineteen-year-old Olive Schloss falls in love with local artist Isaac Robles, whose watchful half sister, Teresa, acts as housekeeper to the Schlosses. Olive paints too, secretly but brilliantly, and persuades Isaac to present her work as his, in order to be taken seriously. But their affections are mismatched and become even more strained as “Isaac’s” paintings are bought by Peggy Guggenheim and the country’s political mood darkens. This split-screen narration, though intriguingly detailed, lacks the freshness and persuasive emotional intensity of The Miniaturist, and its central premise—Olive’s refusal to own her groundbreaking work—is wobbly. But Burton’s devotion to her female characters sustains the novel even when the plotting wavers.
Tidily if dully concluded, this second novel fails to hit the same sweet, wholly integrated spot as its predecessor, but Burton fans will be happy to reunite with her committed storytelling.