by Tracy Chevalier
After the death of their son Tommy, the Kellaways need a change of pace so they pack up all their things and move away from their tiny English countryside town of Piddletrenthide to the hustling, bustling streets of 18th century London. The family moves into an apartment next door to the artist and poet William Blake and struggle to find customers for their wares: chairs made by father and son, buttons made by mother and daughter. The son Jem soon befriends a fiery London girl named Maggie, who takes him and his sister Maisie around town and helps them adjust to city life. As the French Revolution shakes France to pieces, its shockwaves can be felt across the Channel, upending the lives of the Kellaways and their new neighbors.
I’ve read several of Chevalier’s other books, and enjoyed most of them, but Burning Bright really flamed out. Like many of her other works, it focuses on a particular artist and attempts to bring his world to life. Here, it’s meant to be the poet and printmaker William Blake. Unfortunately, the artist makes few appearances, and when he does show up it is only to recite his poetry and ask vague philosophical questions that often go right over the heads of Jem, Maisie and Maggie. I can’t say that I knew Blake any more than I had before I read the book except that his marriage to his wife appears to have been a true partnership, for she assists him with his printmaking and tolerates his eccentricities with great patience.
But if Burning Bright fails to bring Mr. Blake to life, it successfully conjures up the sights and sounds of Georgian London as the Kellaways explore the city from one end to the other, contrasting the crowded streets and noisy crowds with their quiet, idyllic life back in Piddletrenthide. There’s a certain focus on the ugliness of London – the poxy whores, the grubby taverns, and the crummy factory work Maggie’s father forces her to take on – but the liveliness and wonder with which the Kellaways confront their new world makes it all seem devastatingly real.
However, the dazzling descriptions of London life can’t make up for the fact that there just isn’t much of a story. People come and go but no strong narrative binds everyone together. At the end, the Kellaways leave and head back to the country, and there’s an impression that their sojourn in the city had little impact on their lives, leading the reader to question why the author bothered to tell their story in the first place.
3 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th
2011: Magical JxR Vol. 1 by Lee Sun-Young
2010: O Juliet by Robin Maxwell
2009: Mr. Darcy’s Dream by Elizabeth Aston