Monday, September 29, 2008

Book Review: Burning Bright

Burning Bright
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Genre: Literary Fiction (Historical)
My Rating: A-

Summary From the Book Jacket: In the waning days of eighteenth-century London, poet, artist, and printer William Blake works in obscurity. Next door, country boy Jem Kellaway moves in and strikes up a tentative friendship with street-saavy Maggie Butterfield. While England is rocked by the waves of the French Revolution, the two children navigate the confusing and exhilarating path to adolescence. Their lives intertwine with Blake’s and inspire him in this brilliantly rendered historical tale.

Review: This is not a book that I would typically select for myself; however, it was the September book club selection for my local library’s book club, so I had to stretch my reading horizons. Having that perspective, the book started off a little slow, but (for me) picked up around page 55 when Ann Kellaway, mother of the main family in the book, becomes enamored with the circus.

This book is clearly a study in opposites:

“‘What lies between two opposites is us.’
…‘The tension between two contraries is what makes us ourselves. We have not just one, but the other too, mixing and clashing and sparking inside us. Not just light, but dark. Not just peace, but at war. Not just innocent, but experienced.’ His eyes rested for a moment on the daisy Maisey still held. ‘It is a lesson we could all do well to learn, to see all the world in a flower…” (p. 177).
The book asks whether innocence and experience are truly opposites—some characters appear “innocent,” but handle situations with considerable aplomb, while other seemingly “experienced” characters are truly children at heart. The book is rife with situations that make you consider how you define experience and innocence (or other such arbitrary definitions of character, such as loyalty versus traitor).

The story-telling is effortless in this book; what seem to be happenstance or innocuous events turn out to be life-changing (again, a contrast of opposites). Small instances of a random fire and an off-hand comment change the life of the Kellaway’s. A change in the weather precipitates a meeting between two characters that results in an unplanned pregnancy (forever changing the girl’s life).

The other striking element of Chevalier’s writing is the characterization—even characters that seem secondary are intimately drawn and played out, taking on a significance of their own. One such “background” character, Rosie Wightman, is a girl from the country who, after an accident that ruins her family’s life, has to flee to London and try to make her own way in the world. This is written regarding her:

“While the Kellaways discussed what to do, Rosie stood docile, licking her fingers for stray ginger crumbs. It might be expected that she would take some interest in what happens to her, but she did not. Since arriving in London the year before, she had been raped, robbed, and beaten; she owned nothing but what she wore, and was constantly hungry; and though she didn’t know it yet, she had the clap. Rosie no longer expected to have any say over her life, and so she did not say anything,” (p. 170).
One would think that Rosie, a character that is a chance encounter when the three adolescents are skirting around in London, would not have an effect on the story. However, she resurfaces toward the end of the story, in a horrible state, and joins Maisey and Maggie on a journey to return Maisey to the place of her youth.

This book causes one to think about innocence and youth. In a time when many people say that children are growing up too quickly, one needs only look at their life and consider how they can make difference in the life of a developing child. You may not have children of your own, but a simple recommendation of this book to a parent may make all the difference in the world. If we’ve learned anything from reading Burning Bright it is that small gestures affect lives.

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