Book Review: Burning Bright

Burning Bright

Tracy Chevalier

Penguin Group

320 pages

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

I admit it—I loves me some William Blake.  I am not a poetry lover by any means.  In fact, I was one of those self professed poetry haters in college, much to the chagrin of my professors.  Slowly though, my opinion started to shift and I even found some poetry that I enjoyed reading!  Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were some of my favorite poems.  That fact, coupled with my enjoyment of Tracy Chevalier’s other books made Burning Bright an obvious choice for me.

Jem Kellaway is an adolescent boy who has just moved with his family from England ’s countryside to the hard knock streets of London in 1792.  He and his family are mourning the death of Jem’s brother and they are trying to make a clean break of things.  Life in London though is not what they anticipated, and fitting in is difficult to do.  Jem’s father has brought his family to London after being offered a job by Philip Astley, the ostentatious proprietor of Astley’s Circus.  Meanwhile, Jem also befriends a local girl named Maggie, who is his polar opposite (think innocent vs experienced).  Maggie has been brought up on the streets of London and her father is a professional swindler, so she is a bit jaded.

Maggie and Jem quickly become fascinated with their neighbor, the poet William Blake.  Blake is infamous around London for his political leanings, but Maggie and Jem, along with Jem’s sister Maisie, soon discover that Blake is an interesting man to be around.  Despite the fact that they are kids, he is always willing to have a chat with them, show them his printing press, etc.

So here’s my beef with the book.  If you read my Sunday Salon from 11/6/2010, then you know that I complained about this book being boring.  I did end up changing my tune, as I felt that the second half of the book picked up.  However, I don’t think Chevalier executed Burning Bright as well as she did her other books.  For instance, as with this book, The Girl with the Pearl Earring also involved a famous man (in this case, Vermeer).  The story was

William Blake

told from the viewpoint of one of his servants as opposed to one of his neighbors, but the effect was still the same—take a normal, everyday person and have them tell the story of a more famous person.  I don’t think that we got the intimate view of Blake that we did with Vermeer.  He seemed two dimensional and almost like an afterthought.  He could have been any old random character thrown in the mix.  He did not take center stage in the story.  I really felt that was a shame, as Blake was an interesting guy.  Chevalier could have gone so much further with it.

I did enjoy the metaphor of innocence versus experience, and I thought that it gave the book a little twist.  Otherwise though, I feel that the book was about Jem and Maggie and not about William Blake.  In trying to separate my expectations of the book from what it really is, I can say that this is a fun piece of historical fiction that could have stood on its own.  However, given that Blake should have had a larger part, I can’t say that I am not disappointed with how it all turned out.

Other Reviews:

I *know* I recently read a review for this one on another blog but now I can’t find it!

I purchased this book from Half Price Books.

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9 Responses

  1. Songs of Innocence and Experience were the first poems I ever read that I mostly understood. I enjoyed them for the most part.

    I’m not sure i’ll pick up the book though. It doesn’t quite sound like my kind of book.

  2. Hmm… I enjoyed a couple of her earlier books, but am not sure I’ll get to this any time soon.

  3. Huh, I didn’t realize this was about William Blake! How did I miss that? I’ve only read The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but I’ve always thought I should read another of Chevalier’s novels.

  4. For some reason I never read this one, even though Chevalier is one of my favorite authors to read. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it! I don’t have much of an opinion of William Blake, but I do love her other books.

  5. I’ve only read The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which I definitely enjoyed, by this author. I think this one will remain off the wish list since I have so very many others to be reading.

  6. I like Chevalier and have this on my TBR pile – I guess I’ll keep it mind that it won’t be mainly a book about Blake!

  7. I think I’ll pass on this one then and pick up something else by Chevalier.

  8. I loved REMARKABLE CREATURES so much it made me want to explore more of Chevalier’s backlist, but maybe I won’t bother with this one. You didn’t love it, and I’m not even crazy about William Blake.

    You know, sometimes I love book bloggers even more for crossing things off of my TBR and wishlist than I do for adding them.

  9. I’ve read this! :). Quite awhile ago and liked it well enough. I liked GWaPE more.

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