|Tracy Chevalier , author of "Girl With a Pearl Earring," is back with an engaging yet bland followup, "Burning Bright." (Sven Arnstein)|
Historical novel with a hint of innocence
In "Burning Bright," Tracy Chevalier, author of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and three other historical novels , has combined her standard set of ingredients to make another engaging, if somewhat bland, literary concoction, set in late-18th century London. The story's lack of kick is acceptable but surprising, given its colorful headliners: Philip Astley , the impresario considered to be the inventor of the modern circus, and radical mystic poet and illustrator William Blake.
We first see Blake through the eyes of Jem Kellaway , an adolescent boy who has moved to the London borough of Lambeth in March 1792 from the small rural village of Piddletrenthide . As if the noise, fog, and density of the city aren't strange enough, Jem and his sister, Maisie, are intrigued by their first look at their next-door neighbor, a heavy-browed man with piercing gray eyes wearing a floppy red hat, the bonnet rouge that was a sign of solidarity with the Jacobins fomenting revolution in France. Sharing their curiosity is Maggie, a tough and excitable Lambeth girl of Jem's age who becomes the newcomers' friend, guide, and eventual rescuer.
In fact, a more appropriate title for the book might have been "Jem, Maisie, and Maggie's Historically Accurate Adventure," since it is their increasingly bold outings from childhood and from home that provide the story's modest narrative momentum. With her usual attention to detail, Chevalier weaves in exposition about how buttons and Windsor chairs were made, the slack rope walker and equestrian acts in Astley's circus, and the neighborhood surrounding the
But facts alone are not enough to make a historical novel compelling, and Chevalier does try to impose some thematic coherence on the landscape. As rural innocents Jem and Maisie acquire worldly experience in the city, the all-too-sophisticated Maggie begins to reclaim some of the innocence that her Dickensian family, labor in the mustard factory, and a mysterious incident in Cut-Throat Lane robbed her of. In short, they are enacting the "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" that their unconventional neighbor Blake is writing, illustrating, and printing. And in case the parallels aren't sufficiently obvious, we are treated to occasional, somewhat labored conversations between the children and the poet, hammering home the theme that "the tension between contraries is what makes us ourselves."
In what should be the climax of the book, a mob forms outside of Blake's house, demanding that he sign a declaration of loyalty to the British monarchy. But this incident, clearly intended to be emblematic of the anti-Jacobin Terror in England that echoed the concurrent revolutionary movement in France, comes almost out of nowhere, occupies only a single chapter, is not terribly threatening, and serves largely as backdrop for Jem and Maggie's first kiss.
The kiss, however, is quite good. In "Burning Bright," as in past books, Chevalier's writing is most lively and supple when depicting adolescent sexuality. Indeed, this novel could comfortably be classified as juvenile fiction -- a very honorable genre, if not necessarily the one to which Chevalier aspired . Still, if she succeeds in acquainting a new generation with the rapturous work of William Blake on the eve of the 250th anniversary of his birth , she can take pride in her accomplishment.
Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.