History is always in embroiled in the successes of men; well some histories that is. When reading the blurb of The Blazing World, I couldn’t help but chuckle as the rather clichéd saying ‘Behind every great man is a woman’ – it wasn’t a patronising chuckle, but one that rang true. It’s no secret that the art world, in all its successes and beauty, has always – somehow – not shown the talents of women. This is the rather simplistic basis of Siri Hustvedt’s novel.
Hustvedt flays it open in a rather unique way, divulging the life of Harriet (Harry) Burden, a struggling embittered artist, who is paid hopelessly no attention for her work. So begins a rather complicated experiment; Harriet decides to create three identities to hide behind – think Mary Ann Evans who was the amazing George Eliot – in order to get her work recognized. One thing is clear is that Harriet’s involvement with her third identity is shady, and brutal.
My inner feminist shouted out in glee with this novel, but it was the inner book lover that truly went off the rails. It was Hustvedt’s technique in presenting Harriet’s story in a posthumous tome of interviews, essays and personal diaries; all varying in opinion and story – each eluding more and more to the mystery that is Harriet Burden, as the reader is forced to confront the truth behind each mask of identity Harriet is consumed by.
This is a crème brulee of a novel, you never order it every time after dinner, but it’s on that special occasion your eye drifts to the milky-thick-decadent dessert offered (oh, and mind you, one never eats crème brulee just anywhere...); it’s that slight echo of a crack that unleashes a soft gooey centre of all things good in this world. You take each bite, slowly, luxuriously; savoring its craftsmanship.
That is how you should approach this novel, with the respect of an incredibly talented author who can wrap their reader in a story to the point of osmosis. Each word is meant or at least it feels like it, you savor it as it slowly bleeds to something bigger.
This cannot be a book for the sake of reading books. It’s the big guns that you whip out on lonely nights with wine and coffee; you don’t take books like this on holiday, or on the train. You sip it slowly. It’s a great read, literary, and elegant, regal, almost – but beware, you need all your energy for this one, well worth it, but don’t just pick it willy-nilly.
The Blazing World By Siri Hustvedt features on this month’s Exclusive Books Recommends for May..