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Burning Bright

by Tracy Chevalier

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Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier
© Penguin
Penguin, 2007

Tracy Chevalier is a supernova burning bright against the panorama of writers published today. Nowhere does she shine so evanescently as in her 2007 novel, Burning Bright. It begins in March, 1792 in dirty, smoggy London as the Kellaway family moves into this strange urban area from the relative wilds of Piddletrenthide, Dorsetshire. This slice of life concludes in July, 1793 in the clear light of day.

Thomas Kellaway, a master carpenter and builder of finely shaped Windsor chairs, has brought his family to London. His wife Anne, his son Jem, and daughter Maisie accompany him on the promise of a job with Phillip Astley's circus. With Astley's assistance, they find good lodgings (owned by Astley) and begin to make their way in the world before the job opens.

It is a remarkable new world, stranger beyond anything imaginable to two pre-teens from the country. Learning to cope with the lack of trees, the filth in the street, and, especially, the myriad of people who are not always as they seem to be presents a variety of challenges to the family. No one seems stranger than a couple who live in the same building. Jem and Maisie first "meet" this couple as they look out the window into the garden and see the two engaged in intercourse. The couple are none other than William Blake and his wife, Catherine. Blake is in the process of writing, printing, and publishing his Songs of Innocence and Experience and fighting the elements in British society that want to require every citizen to sign an oath of loyalty to the king, a direct response to the events playing out in France. Their lives intersect with the Kellaway children at numerous key points.
Maisie's guide through life in London is Maggie, a street-wise girl who has the brains and strength to navigate the perils of the teeming masses. The offal in the streets, the roiling fog, the characters, and the fetid smell of low tide on the Thames are so elegantly drawn as to place the reader right there, providing a primer on life in 18th Century London. Maisie epitomizes innocence, while Maggie reflects experience in the world as Chevalier skillfully weaves a number of elements together into one highly entertaining and remarkable novel.

Perhaps known best for Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999), Chevalier has written six novels, each of which has demonstrated her ability to inhabit a different historical period and make it and its characters?some real, some imagined?come vividly alive. Her 2009 novel, Remarkable Creatures, is soon to be followed by her seventh, The Last Runaway, due out in early 2013.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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