I am not so unfamiliar with William Blake as to not know what the title of this book refers to. I picked it up at the book sale because I like the poem The Tyger. I haven’t read many of Blake’s works, though, which are quoted a lot in this book, nor do I know his history, so I paired this book with a heavy dose of Wikipedia to get the full effect. I do believe Chevalier has done her research well. I love the way she has blended all her carefully collected data subtly into the story, avoiding information dumps.
This is the story of Jem Kellaway, who has moved to London from Dorsetshire (still has the accent) with his family and the street-wise Londoner Maggie Butterfield. The children form a bond, while getting to know their curious neighbour Mr. Blake (that’s right, the then-quite-under-appreciated poet we’ve all heard of today.) Another major historic figure starring in this book is Philip Astley, the charming circus owner who offers Jem’s father a job as one of his carpenters. Set in Georgian London, in the final decade of the 18th Century, the book is, among other things, about growing up in an urban world, against the backdrop of a raging revolution. And this is what seems to inspire William Blake’s greatest work: which features prominently in this book, The Songs of Innocence and Experience. The book is tragic and touching and scary, deals with rape, murder and loss; like the poems, it’s about opposites, being neither here nor there, about what lies between Heaven and Hell and what it means to be human.
Tracy Chevalier is a good story-teller. She can you keep you thoroughly engaged with her spirited and quirky writing style, entangle you in minute details and realistic dialogue. Jem and Maggie are kids who have been through a lot more than kids should, who think of themselves as adults until they actually begin to grow up. Their relationship is perfect and they’re quite lovable. And then there’s Maisie, the sister who doesn’t act her age, who swoons over the handsome John Astley and naively loses her way. I really liked all the fictional characters, even Charlie and Dick Butterfield. Just when I thought they were getting too predictable, they’d do something that would surprise me and become all the more real. That being said, Mrs and Mr Blake, and the circus owners are too much like cardboard cutouts out of a history textbook. They are too one-dimensional and I almost wish the writer had fleshed them out more, even if that meant straying from fact.
The book was good, not life-altering-ly amazing. It had the potential to be something fantastic; in fact, it got very close to it, but I was disappointed when it didn’t quite end up there. The book dealt with a lot, but all the issues almost cluttered the book. Not every problem got the emotional attention it needed and to me, even at the end, the book seemed incomplete and almost shallow. I like Tracy’s writing style, and I would like to give her better known The Girl With the Pearl Earring a try. Burning Bright, though, I’d only recommend as a breezy, have-time-to-kill, need-a-distraction read.