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Book Review: "Burning Bright", by Tracy Chevalier

Dallas likes to read and review fiction and write original articles about films, books, video games, and other media.


Historical fiction is a genre that has always fascinated me. The whole idea of basing a work of fiction around a real historical figure, or a particular time and place, is something that would have to present some unique challenges to the author — or, at least, that is how I've always imagined it. You would obviously need to be faithful to what is already known, or has already been recorded — but, at the same time, you might not want to be too constrained by recorded history. It just seems like it would be a fascinating balancing act. Of course, just be looking over her list of published novels, it's easy to see that this is something that Tracy Chevalier is very familiar with.

In the case of Burning Bright, the historical figure in question is the famous poet, William Blake — and the time and place is 18th century London, during the time of the French Revolution. It's in this climate of mounting tension that the Kellaway family take the opportunity to leave their rural community behind, in favour of the bustling streets of the city.

Despite finding themselves initially overwhelmed by their new environment, the Kellaway's soon settle, and gradually find themselves won over by the appeals of the city. Thomas Kellaway, the father of the family, finds himself to be highly in demand for his skills as a chair-maker — and, as a result, dedicates much of his time to the demands of his work. Anne, the mother and initially the most reluctant to travel to London, gradually finds herself becoming enamoured with the spectacle of the nearby circus. Meanwhile, the children, Jem and Maisie, soon come to form a strong bond Maggie, a local girl, who comes to act as their guide to the city. In time, the three children also come to form a relationship with their eccentric neighbour, William Blake, who comes to act as something of a mentor guiding their developing maturity.

William Blake make be a continuous presence throughout the novel, but it is actually the three children who quickly settle into a central role. The strength of the bond that develops between siblings Jem and Maisie, and their new acquaintance Maggie, is the true heart of the story — and their experiences as they grow toward adolescence is what drives much of the story forward. Maggie, the extroverted and somewhat cynical London native, finds herself drawn to the comparative innocence of the Kellaway siblings. At the same time, Jem and Maisie, as the somewhat naive newcomers to the city, are eager to learn what they can from the more experienced Maggie. The three form a genuinely likeable trio, and the novel is often at its best when it is focused solely on their adventures.

Williams Blake, for his part, is presented as an eccentric and larger-than-life figure who looms over everyone he meets — in particular, the three children, who often find themselves awe-struck and intimidated by him. He is presented as a passionate and intense creative genius who is more than willing to take a stand for his beliefs, even if doing so places him at odds with an unruly mob. He makes for a genuinely compelling figure.

Through the three children who form the heart of the novel, Burning Bright devotes a fair amount of time to exploring childlike innocence, and its gradual loss children grow toward adolescence and eventual adulthood. This is something which is neatly, and very deliberately, paralleled by the role that William Blake comes to play in their young lives. At the time in which the novel is set, Blake has already completed his famous collection of poems, Songs of Innocence. One of the more interesting ideas that the novel touches on is that it is actually his relationship with this three children, and his observations of the challenges that they face, which inspires his completion of its companion piece, Songs of Experience. Since the novel does not delve nearly as deeply into the thoughts and feelings of Blake as it does into the young trio, though, this is an idea that is not explored to any great depth. But, it is still a fascinating idea.

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As engaging as the novel can be when it is focused on the experience of the young trio, and on exploring the themes relevant to them, Burning Bright is also a novel that can feel oddly unfocused, at times. There is a disjointed and episodic quality to much of the novel, as the focus of the narrative drifts from one character to the other — and, those segments of the novel that are focused on characters other than the children or Blake, such as the Kellaway parents, simply are not as interesting or engaging.

On the other hand, though, the strong bond that forms between the three children, and their relationship that they form with the eccentric poet, remains effective and endearing throughout the novel. Also, and just as important, the city of London, itself, is brought to life very effectively, and with a very impressive attention to detail. It is very apparent that, just as with the figure of William Blake, a great deal of research went into this portrayal of 18th century London. As a result, we are treated to a city which feels real and alive in ways that the settings of other works of fiction sometimes fail to achieve.

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