rating: 3 of 5 stars
London at the time of the French revolution takes center stage in this beautifully written novel featuring location and themes over plot. When craftsman Thomas Kellaway moves his wife Anne and teen-aged children Jem and Masie from the Piddle Valley in Dorset to London in March of 1792, they are all but overwhelmed by the contrasting grandeur and ugliness of the big city. Thomas hopes he can better support the family making chairs for the circus and Anne hopes distance will heal her tortured mind after the accidental death of their son Tommy.
Tracy Chevalier has drawn a deep and richly detailed portrait of London, especially the Borough of Lambeth where the noisy, dirty and boisterous lifestyle of the poor that differs so greatly from the quieter world of Dorset is accentuated when the circus comes to town.
Contrasts flow through the Kellaway’s lives as surely as the Thames flows through London, and here the author draws upon William Blake’s focus on “contraries,” or pairs of opposites, for the novel’s theme. London, in “Burning Bright” becomes an alchemist’s athanor wherein the Kellaways will undergo their transformations beneath the piercing gaze of Blake, the adept who applies his “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” within the novel as Holy Scripture.
Blake serves as a catalyst within the story line, yet he is a one-dimensional character who primary speaks in philosophic riddles and quotes from his favorite poems. While Jem, Masie and their new, streetwise friend, Maggie, view the home of William and Kate Blake as calm sanctuary within a world where the trials of childhood are greatly magnified by the dangerous environment, the reader will come away having learned more about the Borough of Lambeth and than the famous poet and print maker.
Like her adult characters in “Burning Bright,” Chevalier appears unwilling to step past Blake’s fame, notoriety and fiery persona and confront the poet head on. Doing so would have brought closure to the novel for readers and characters alike. We have a well-crafted slice-of-life portrait of a rural family’s brief sojourn into the big city. What we don’t have is an overt look at what it finally meant to them.