Paperback: Burning Bright, By Tracy Chevalier

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The Independent Culture

Tracy Chevalier is best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring, a novel based on the Vermeer painting of the same name. This book adopts a similar approach, intertwining the story of two children forming a friendship in London at the end of the 18th century with the work of their neighbour, the poet William Blake.

Jem Kellaway and his family have recently arrived in the city from Dorset after suffering a terrible loss. His friendship with a streetwise Londoner, Maggie Butterfield, and the way their journey through life influences Blake's work, makes for enjoyable reading – but it's Blake who makes it worth reading. A radical free spirit unappreciated during his lifetime, and whose religious and political beliefs cut him off from polite society, his life is a gift to any novelist.

Readers who enjoy Chevalier's style will find much to admire in her depiction of London in the 1790s, but for all its descriptions of bustle and activity there's something anaemic about the whole project. She doesn't hold back from revealing the city's dark side, but her idea of darkness always seems a little too pale.