Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Harriet Burden is an artist.  Married to one of New York's most famous gallery owners, she feels her own art is neglected by her husband's refusal to show her work.  It also goes unnoticed by other galleries, her name just an add-on to her husband's fame.  After his death, Harriet decides that she will make a name for herself and prove society wrong in its preference for male artists at the same time.  She hatches a plot to display her work under the name of various male artists.  She uses three men at different showings, or does she?

The Blazing World is Siri Hustvedt's exploration of the art world as well as the question of gender differences, the formation of personality and the difficulty of trusting one's perceptions.  Told after Harriet's death, the novel unfolds through a series of documents.  There are Harriet's extensive journals, interviews with her children, lover and the men who she chose for her ploy, articles in art magazines, etc.  A picture emerges of how Harriet's personality was formed and the different ways she was viewed by those she surrounded herself with.  The reader is left to decide if Harriet really created the works she claimed she had done and then masked by using men to front for her in shows.  Was this real and Harriet a true artist not given her due?  Or was this false, a strange plea for recognition by an artist not judged worthy of acclaim?

Readers will be drawn into this world.  Harriet takes her inspiration from the medieval writer, Margaret Cavendish, who wrote the original The Blazing World, and whose work was never given the recognition it deserved.  Questions of whether the world is still male-centric, whether women can ever be given true recognition outside of the roles of mother and wife, and what role perception plays in exposing reality must be decided by each individual reading this material.  The book is a tour-de-force and readers won't be surprised that it is a long-list nomination for the 2014 Mann Booker Prize.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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