Tracy Chevalier writes historic fiction that isn’t laughably romanticized nor suspiciously unbelievable. Like her more popular novels, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Burning Bright uses the backdoor approach to historical fiction. Instead of being with the king in his chambers amidst the turmoil of European revolution, we’re in a crowded London suburb on the other side of the Thames. Chevalier uses circus folk and tradesmen as neighbors and witnesses to Romantic painter, poet and thinker, William Blake.
Though not familiar with Blake’s work or knowing exactly what he did, Burning Bright was nevertheless a pleasurable read. Arguably not riveting or exciting plot wise, the book is filled with characters of enough substance to engage and intrigue. While I found myself wondering, “why do I care?” I most certainly did care where Maggie, Jem, Maisie and their families would end up. Lovers of late 18th century english history will probably thrill in the descriptions of London, the various neighborhoods, and the people therein. Chevalier, with skill that has won her critical acclaim, creates the dirty, pre-industrial world of London and the surrounding countryside in a way that offers a more tangible experience than a film.
Reading Burning Bright was akin to following along on a peaceful, typical, journey of an average family in the late 1700s, I watched from a disengaged window while their world played out in front of me. If you want an exciting political thriller, keep looking. If you want a fairly easy read with undertones of historical context and a family that learns and changes together, Burning Bright might be the book for you.