‘Burning Bright’ by Tracy Chevalier

Burning Bright Chevalier is, of course, best known for ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’. I’ve still not read that, but have read various other books of hers and enjoyed them. So when I found this in a discount book store just before a trip away, I grabbed it for some good holiday reading.

The result wasn’t quite what I expected. In fact, I probably shouldn’t be reviewing it at all, since I only managed to read three chapters. I was so surprised by the book’s style and content that I sought out Ms Chevalier’s website to check if this was a children’s book. But the account on the site suggests it’s intended for adults after all.

Basically the book is about a young lad, Jem Kellaway, who moves to 18th century London with his family, lives next door to the painter William Blake, and befriends a local girl. It’s told (mostly) from the point of view of the boy, and uses very childlike language throughout. This may be a conscious attempt to show the world through a child’s eyes, but the trouble is that it continues even when the point of view has changed to an adult character.

Those point of view changes seemed frequent. The first chapter started off in Jem’s voice, switched to ‘third person omniscient’ for an info dump about a tragedy that claimed Jem’s brother’s life, and then hopped again to Jem’s mother for the last two sentences of the chapter. Chapter two seemed to be mostly from Jem’s father’s point of view, but with sudden veerings into Jem’s head for things that only he could know. And the third chapter was different again. I found all this ‘head-hopping’ disconcerting. If I’m reading a book with one main character I like to get to know that character, slip inside their head and see the world through their eyes. I don’t want to get dragged out again at the bottom of the second or third page.

Nothing else about the early part of the book gripped me. The adult characters were surprisingly two-dimensional (neurotic mother, ineffectual father, bluff circus owner) and the children themselves didn’t do enough, quickly enough, to catch my attention.

If I’d read this without the cover or title page, I’d have been hard pushed to recognise it for a Chevalier novel since the style seems so completely different from her previous work.

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