Friday, November 12, 2010

Tyger Tyger Burning Bright

I've always been a fan of historical fiction.  Honestly, I think that if history class was taught with high quality historical fiction people would remember more of it that "In fourteen hundred ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue" and "I can not tell a lie." At any rate, I'm glad to have discovered a new-to-me author of historical fiction, Tracey Chevalier.  In Burning Bright she paints a lively picture of life in England at the turn of the nineteenth century.  The story centers on Jem, a country boy brought to the city by the death of his brother and the lure of the circus, and Maggie, a poor city girl from a rather shady family hustling to make ends meet.  Two more different people are hard to imagine, but they strike up a friendship that feels completely believable.

After Jem's brother falls from a tree, breaking his neck, his family is left devastated.  His father, a chair-maker, come to London from the small town of Piddletrenthide (which is an actual place-I looked it up) after being offered a job by the owner of a traveling circus that came through on their way back to London for the season.  They move into the area of London known as Lambeth, and discover that their neighbor is none other than William Blake, poet and artist.  The year is 1792, and France is in the throes of a revolution.  This makes the monarchy in England very nervous, and there are soon bands of men roaming the city forcing people to sign loyalty oaths to king and country.  This provides a backdrop as Jem, his sister Maisie, Maggie, and the rest of their families struggle to maintain their moral footing.

While Blake is an important character in the arc of the novel, the most vivid characters are the ordinary people living in Lambeth.  Chevalier takes on issues of class, poverty, prostitution, the treatment of girls and women, and the political climate of the period in a way that I felt I was living in that place in that time myself.  Isn't that what we ask of historical fiction?  The parallels between the uber-patriotism of the Londoners during Blake's time and the unthinking, unquestioning patriotism that was a hallmark of the Bush era were not lost on me.  It seems that anytime the government feels threatened, dissent and free-speech are quashed, and a certain amount of unreasonableness ensues.  Like I said, maybe if history was taught using historical fiction we as a people would be less likely to repeat it.

8 comments:

  1. I only studied History for 2 years at school and am making up for lost time by reading lots of quality historical fiction. Chevalier is one of my favourite authors and I've read all her books, this being my least favourite although still a very good read - you have a treat in store for you with the rest of her novels!

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  2. I think I agree. Maybe the English teachers (or whatever your main language is) should team up with the history teachers and get people to read historical fiction that's related to what is being taught in history at that moment.

    Brilliant!

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  3. If Chevalier is new to you, that means you haven't read Girl with a Pearl Earring--I highly recommend that one! You should put it on your list!

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  4. I have this one on my TBR shelves, now looking forward to reading it after seeing your review.

    I echo Kathy, Girl with a Pearl Earring is fab!

    carol

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  5. I agree thoroughly with your point about historical fiction. Gotta say, though, I've read most of Chevalier's books, after first reading "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and loving it -- and I've been quite disappointed. I didn't think any of her other books, including this one, were very good. However, I do have a recommendation: Sarah Dunant. She writes about the Renaissance, and looks at women's lives, as diverse as a nun, an artist, and a courtesan. (As a bonus, she's also written excellent contemporary novels, including a series starring a woman detective.)

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  6. Thanks, Bev-I'll look her up. I have Chevalier's Lady and the Unicorn on my TBR shelves, but plan to pick up The Girl with a Pearl Earring as well. I wonder if because you read what many say is the best of her works first it ruined the others because they weren't as good? I've had that happen to me-like with John Grishom. I loved A Time to Kill, and everything after that first book felt like a letdown.

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  7. I just finished this book earlier this week! I found it lagging a bit at first but I got into it and ended up really enjoying it. I love Blake's poetry, so that was a plus.

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  8. Heather, I think disappointed expectations are definitely a factor: I kept looking for what I had enjoyed in Pearl Earring through four books. But I think the books are flawed in themselves. If I had read any of the others first, I'm pretty sure that would have been the last.

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