Monday, 19 August 2013

Tigers Eight: Tyger, tyger

Ah, Tracy Chevalier. I find her novels interesting in three ways, none of which really have anything to do with how much I enjoyed them. Firstly, it seems that she has largely seized upon a formula and stuck to it; characters in a given historical period meet a Famous Person or Object (or, for maximum success, both: see Girl With A Pearl Earring) from that period and learn things about it. When she wanders outside this formula, the results can be interesting (The Virgin Blue, her first novel, is actually one of her best; it's rough around the edges, but I think that makes it more memorable) but more often terrible (why was Falling Angels written?) The second thing that I find interesting about Chevalier's work is that Girl With A Pearl Earring genuinely is an exceptionally good historical novel, something which I can't say is true of any of her other novels, although I thought The Virgin Blue showed more promise than most of them. I've considered this for some time, and I think that she chose precisely the right voice for Girl; because Griet's narration is so sparse, limited and precise, it makes it easier for Chevalier to tell a compelling story without the reader realising the limitations of her writing. The trouble with first-person narration, of course, is that you can't repeat exactly the same trick without all your narrators sounding the same - something that Chevalier is unfortunately prone to in her multi-voice novels, Falling Angels and The Lady and the Unicorn (which I enjoyed, but it could have been so much more).  

I've found Chevalier's recent novels especially disappointing. While I've not read her latest, The Last Runaway, I found Remarkable Creatures remarkably dull, and felt that it vividly illustrated the pitfalls of Chevalier's habit of using real historical characters in her writing. Unusually, the two women - Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpott - were centre stage in this novel, and Chevalier seemed constrained by the history, producing something that seemed halfway between history and biography, with little narrative drive or interest. However, as her author's note revealed, it wasn't even particularly informative about Anning and Philpott, with their lives compressed and rewritten for narrative purposes. Burning Bright - the novel I'm supposed to be reviewing here - suffers from the opposite problem. William Blake is the headline name here, but he hardly appears in the novel and makes little impact on its narrative. I can see the thematic resonances that Chevalier was aiming for, with Jem and Maggie's journey from innocence to experience reflected in Blake's poetry, but again, I don't think she's a good enough writer to pull it off.

Burning Bright, is, above all, dull. Chevalier is strong on eighteenth-century social and economic history, and Jem and Maggie's lives are firmly situated in both the present-day setting of London, and Jem's memories of his old life in Dorsetshire. As ever, Chevalier effectively homes in on small-scale detail, like her description of the various types of buttons Jem's mother and sister produce, and Maggie's swift assessments of the tactics of London salespeople, who utilise catastrophes such as fire for their own ends. However, the central plotline - a growing romance between Maggie and Jem - is too clumsily written to be really absorbing, and a subplot about the misfortunes of Jem's sister, Maisie, who is obviously intended to be a foil to Maggie, too cliched. And while London is as vividly described as Vermeer's seventeenth-century Delft was, Chevalier fails to weave her observations into the overall story, leaving us with a novel which, like Remarkable Creatures, is uncomfortably poised between history and fiction. And although the boundaries between history and fiction are an interesting place to explore, I think it would take a novelist with greater talent than Chevalier to take this on (even AS Byatt doesn't quite manage it in The Children's Book.)

The third interesting thing about Tracy Chevalier, then, is: why have I read all her novels? I think because, when she's at her best (Virgin, Girl, Lady - do you see what she did there?) she writes entertaining reads that are illustrated with fascinating historical detail, rather than long historical descriptions that lack plot (Falling, Burning, Remarkable - playing this first-word game is fun!) I hope that her latest novel, which I plan to read once it comes out in paperback, fits into the former category rather than the latter.

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