What’s in the middle?
Tracy Chevalier is a skilled writer whose novels have all been historical, built around a famous personage from the chosen time period. In Burning Bright, that person is William Blake, the rather mystical English poet/philosopher/engraver, but his presence is intermittent. This novel focuses upon two late-18th century London families, one newly arrived from Dorset and the other more established. Both are poor, struggling to get by, and the plot is built around the adolescent children of these families. Characterization is one of Chevalier’s strengths, and Maisie, Jem, and Maggie quickly charm the reader, while others, notably John Astley (the dastardly villain of the piece), Charlie, and the bigoted landlady. Circus folk, pub denizens, washerwomen, and the like add plenty of dash and color. A feel for life in London during the French Revolution quickly develops. Thematically, the concepts of opposites, the conundrum of what’s in the middle of each opposing pair, and the drive toward symmetry, are all recurrent ideas, taken from Blake’s own work.
Burning Bright provides hours of intelligent, pleasurable, and at times, thought provoking reading.