Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

No. 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, 1792. Poet, artist and printer William Blake - local eccentric and political radical - works anonymously amidst the raucous din of a teeming, jittery London. Across the Channel, revolution is imploding in France. Nearby, the renowned Astley's Circul is rehearsing its upcoming show, and next door the Kellaway family, recently arrived from the countryside, is moving in. Maggie Butterfield, the streetwise daughter of a local rogue, is looking for trouble - or at least a friend. When she and young Jem Kellaway are drawn into Blake's spell, the change meting of three unusual souls sets the stage for an impassioned journey. Jem and Maggie spark the imagination of the poet, influencing one of the greatest and most mystical works in English literature, Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Burning Bright evokes the full pageantry of Georgian London; its circus spectacles, mustard factories, pubs and bawdy songs, the grandeur of Westminster Abbey and the secrets of Cut-Throat Lane. Behind these lie the greater movements of an era: the influence of a nearby revolution, the mustering of forces loyal to the Crown, and the agonies of being an independent thinker in an age suspicious of dissent.

As she did in the bestselling Girl With a Pearl Earring, Chevalier brilliantly captures an era and a sense of place, at the same time deftly evoing an artist's vision. Overflowing with energy, enterprise, and the power of creation, Burning Bright brings us a vivid story of the unpredictable, exhilarating passage toward adulthood.

Is it bad blogging to quote oneself? When I read Falling Angels by this author, this was my opening paragraph:

The only other Tracy Chevalier book I have read was Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I absolutely loved! When I read that one I picked it up with the intention of just reading the first couple of pages. Two and a half hours later, I had finished it and was blown away. This book never really grabbed my attention in the same way, although it was an entertaining enough read.

and I have to say that my feelings about this one are pretty much the same! Once again I wasn't dragged into the story, when I really, really wanted to have another one of those experiences where time just flies by, and everything around you doesn't matter at all!

I think that my first issue with this book is that there is an element of trying too hard to recreate the feel that made GWAPE such a huge hit. Instead of the painter, we have the poet William Blake, supposedly finding inspiration from a couple of young kids who are coming of age. Whilst I don't have any qualms with this as an approach, it kind of falls down when Blake is nothing more than a secondary character in the first two thirds of the book. If anything, the main character aside from the two teenagers, Maggie and Jem, for the first part of the book is Philip Astley, the larger than life circus owner, who provides the Kellaway family with the impetus to move to London, a home and employment, as well as entertainment. It is only in the last third of the book that Blake comes more to the fore, mainly in the role of political radical, in a time when it was dangerous to think outside of the square.

If anything, part of the issue I have with this book is that the author tried to cram so much into it. Without even thinking too long about it there are several themes that come to mind: coming of age (of Maggie, Jem and his sister Maisie), first love, political freedom or lack thereof, the effect of the industrial age on living conditions (specifically when Maggie is forced to get a job firstly at the mustard factory and then at the vinegar factory), the effects of grief and loss on the Kellaway family. In addition to these, Chevalier touches on the opulence of the lives of the haves compared to the have nots, the plight of young girls who go astray, the after effects of a violent attack, and also touching on a romantic note, not forgetting how to make Dorsetshire buttons and Windsor chairs! She also went to great lengths to portray London of 1792 with the grimy Thames, the dangerous and dodgy characters, the harlots, the glory of Westminster Abbey. London is in a way one of the characters.

Too much going on!

I realise I haven't focussed much on what actually happened in the book. Part of the reason for that is that for the most part it feels almost as though the storyline skims across the surface of what could have been a much deeper book.

All of this may make it sound as though I really disliked this book. I didn't. There were some really good elements to the book. It's just that it is like dreams unfulfilled - the capacity was there for something really good, but it just didn't eventuate.

I still have two more Chevalier books to read, and I will get to them eventually, but I will be trying hard to not raise my expectations too much before I start them.

Rating 3.5/5


  1. I only read Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn, the first one was amazing and I loved it, the second one wasn't as breathtaking but was still a good story, this time about tapestries. I don't think she will ever write anything like GWAPE though!

  2. By the way, have you read The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland? I liked it as much as GWAPE.

  3. I haven't read The Passion of Artemisia but I did read Girl in Hyacinth Blue by her (and there is a review of it on my blog). I just picked up her new one, Luncheon of the Boating Party, up from the library the other day, and I am looking forward to reading it!

  4. I agree with you--it was like she tried to do too much with it, and ended up not making much of a point at all. I enjoyed it as a picture of what life was like in London at the time, but the plot was definitely lacking.