Saturday, January 28, 2012

259 (2012 #4). Burning Bright

by Tracy Chevalier,
read by Jill Tanner

I've read a couple of Chevalier's other works, and was looking forward to this one, as the blurbs on the dust jacket indicated that poet William Blake was a character, and I was hoping to learn more about him.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case - Blake (and his wife) are only minor characters in this book.  I only learned a little about his idiosyncrasies and quirks, and it seemed odd that he would discuss philosophy with a couple of uneducated children (the main characters) and they in turn would quote his poetry.

The novel covers the period from March 1792 to July 1793, when Blake was a printer and relief etcher (a technique he invented; something I did not know) in the Lambeth section of London.  The Kelleway family from Dorset moves in next door, lured to London by the promise of work by circus owner Philip Astley (another historical figure in the book).  Not too far away is the streetwise Butterfield family.  Their youngest teenage children, Jem and Maggie respectively, become friends and are the main characters in this book.

The strength of the book is Chevalier's rendering of life in late Georgian-era London and Dorset (I was pleased to learn Jem's hometown of Piddletrenthide was real), especially harsh realities of life in the city.  Little details like the making of Dorset buttons and Windsor chairs added to the atmosphere.

Perhaps more familiarity with Blake's work would have helped me get more out of this novel.  I recognized his famous poem "The Tiger" (the title of the book comes from the first line), but missed some of the themes about opposites (Maggie representing Blake's Songs of Experience and Jem his Songs of Innocence) and symmetry.

British actress Jill Tanner's reading kept me going through the plodding plot.  She was excellent at creating different voices and appropriate accents for the characters, and even sang some of the bawdy pub songs, adding to the period feel of the book.  The audiobook does not include the acknowledgments at the end of the print book, where Chevalier lists her sources.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  A print copy for reference was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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