Monday, 1 May 2017

Book Review - 'Burning Bright', by Tracy Chevalier

Basing a work of fiction on a real historical figure would have to be a daunting prospect.

For the writer, there's the obvious need for research - a very pronounced need to familiarise themselves with the figure in question in order to ensure that their portrayal is as accurate as possible, and that it is something that readers will be willing to accept. Assuming, of course, that the writer actually cares enough about authenticity to make the effort, this whole process would have to be much time consuming, and potentially much more stressful, then simply creating an entirely fictional character to serve as the protagonist of their story. After all, it's not enough to write for a general audience who might not be familiar with the subject matter - they also have to be prepared for potential readers who might know as much, if not more, about the matter at hand.

Even for the reader, though, there might also be the nagging question of exactly how well the writer has done their job, here - and, of exactly how true a representation of the historical figure in question this fictionalised portrayal truly is. After all, it is depressingly easy to imagine a lazy author simply not bothering to do any of the required research.

With Burning Bright, the historical figure in question is the famous poet William Blake - a man whose life's work would be familiar to fans of classic poetry all over the world. Here portrayed as something of an eccentric genius, Blake is presented to the reader as an intensely passionate man, with regard to his own firmly held beliefs - as well as a man who proves to be quite willing to stand up for what he considers to be most important, even if doing so should place him at odds with an unruly mob. Regardless of how accurate this portrayal of William Blake may be (though, a quick glance at the impressive number of references listed at the back of the novel should be enough to convince any reader that Tracy Chavalier didn't approach the issue lightly, at least), it remains true that this interpretation of the famous poet makes for a genuinely compelling figure. It would probably be fair to say that William Blake is the best thing about Burning Bright - and, this is something that could become a potential issue for many readers, when you realise that the novel isn't actually about him, at all.

Following the death of their eldest son, the Kellaway family are given the opportunity to leave their small rural community behind in favour of the bustling streets of 18th century London. Despite finding themselves naturally overwhelmed by their new environment, the family quickly settle down and gradually find themselves won over by the appeal of the city. The children, Jem and Maisie, form a friendship with a local girl, Maggie, who becomes their guide to the city. Thomas Kellaway, the father, devotes himself to the increasing demands of his work as a chair-maker and carpenter. And, Anne, the mother of the family and initially the most reluctant, gradually finds herself won over by the spectacle of the nearby circus. The three children also find themselves intrigued by the mysterious figure of the neighbour, William Blake.

The relationship that forms between these three children, and the eccentric poet, is clearly the premise on which the bulk of the novel rests - as William Blake finds himself cast as the unlikely guide and mentor on their path toward greater maturity. Alongside this, there is also the idea, never directly stated though often hinted at, that these children may also have come to influence the poet - with the implication being that the three came to form part of the inspiration for Blake's Songs of Experience (the companion piece to his Songs of Innocence - which, by the start of the novel, had already been completed).

The influence that Blake had on the three children is obvious throughout the novel - with each being impressed, and possibly even a little intimidated, by the poet from the very first moment that they meet him. Unfortunately, though, the same can't really be said in reverse. Due to the simple fact that William Blake is clearly more of a supporting character in the novel, and one who is often absent, we are never given any sort of real insight into Blake's own thoughts and feelings. So, while Jem, Maisie, and even Maggie, clearly come to hold a very genuine level of respect for the poet, and while that respect is often expressed in a way that feels very real and genuine, the parallel idea that William Blake was just as inspired by them remains largely unexplored.

This wouldn't necessarily be a negative, of course - except for the fact that William Blake is, as I have already said, clearly the most interesting character in the novel. Each of the three children who serve as the novel's true protagonists was likable enough, of course - and, more importantly, they each come across as well-developed and three-dimensional characters. But, despite that, I still found myself wishing that William Blake could have been given a larger role to play.

There is, unfortunately, also a very disjointed, and episodic, feel to the events that take place throughout the novel which can be a little frustrating. With the focus of the narrative tending to drift back and forth between various characters almost at random, and with one scene moving rapidly to the next without much time to simply dwell on what had just happened, the novel, itself, began to feel a little disjointed, to me. With its focus kept predominantly on the children, the novel is clearly much more concerned with recounting various events in their lives than it is in telling any sort of broader story. Beginning with the Kellaway family's arrival in London, and ending with their departure, the novel eventually reaches a point that doesn't quite manage to feel like a conclusion, or a resolution - instead feeling more like a point at which the author simply chose to stop writing.

On a more positive note, though, Burning Bright does manage to offer one of the clearest images of life in 18th century London that I can ever recall coming across. Much like with the figure of William Blake, himself, it is clear that a great deal of research has gone into the portrayal of London - the results of which are clearly shown in the quality of the writing. The city manages to feel alive, and real, in ways that settings in similar works of fiction often seem to fail to achieve - and, the cast of characters that fill the city all manage to feel like well-drawn, and rounded, individuals.

While my personal preference would have been a more clearly defined central narrative to carry the story, rather than the episodic series of events that the novel offered, I still found myself enjoying many of these segments. Also, while I would definitely have preferred that the novel's most well-drawn, and most compelling, figure could have been given a larger role to play, the three children who served as the novel's protagonists did managed to be likable enough, and interesting enough, to hold my attention, at least.

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