The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I’ve had a crazy busy couple of weeks which is why it’s taken me so long to read this book. That said, it’s definitely not a quick read kind of book. It’s intellectual and can be quite dense at times as there are references – and often academic ones – to history, philosophy and literature throughout. It is a non-linear novel that is incredibly well crafted in a giant web of interwoven ideas and clues.

The Blazing World is about Harriet ‘Harry’ Burden, an artist trying to navigate the New York art world. She is frustrated at her lack of recognition, especially in comparison to her male contemporaries, and so she creates a plot to reveal this bias. This involves creating art with the cooperation of three very different male artists, who agree to present the work as their own, thus hiding her identity behind three male ‘masks’. However this is far more complex than a plain feminist issue and it becomes perhaps more complex than even Harriet intended. The novel is constructed like a biography made up of extracts from Harriet’s journals, interviews with her friends or with others who knew her, statements from her children and others, reviews of her work and that presented by her ‘masks’, and other accounts. This makes the novel far more interesting than a singular narrative – you, the reader, must decide whom you believe and who tells the least biased version of events. Harriet’s ‘experiment’ creates a conversation not just about bias in the art world but a much broader look at perception:

What interested me were the perceptions and their mutability, the fact that we mostly see what we expect to see.

Harriet wants to prove that human perception is shaped by expectation and experience; she believes in a post-structuralist interpretation of perception as a social construction. She also discusses the psychology of belief and delusion and suggests that we are never able to completely distance ourselves from the opinions of others when forming our own:

We like to believe we are resistant to the words and actions of others. We believe that their imaginings do not become ours, but we are wrong.

The novel is full of little titbits of information and interesting quotes that I kept wanting to make a note of – I definitely felt like I was learning things while I was reading too!

I really liked Harry’s characterisation. She was at times frustrating and self-centred – I could see why some of the other characters did not get on with her or why she was not always accepted – yet I could also sympathise with her and I could see the reasons for why she felt so strongly about the things she did. She realises that:

Much of prejudice is unconscious. What appears on the surface is an unidentified aversion, which is then justified in some rational way.

This is an intelligent and well-observed novel – the story is sound and the characters are interesting. The abstruse references can be a little off-putting – I felt that I coped pretty well being fairly fresh out of university, and so quite used to reading stuff that goes over my head 70% of the time! I did think that sometimes these references seemed irrelevant because they didn’t add anything to the plot – occasionally they were little more than a rude interruption to the flow of the narrative – and therefore the purpose of them seemed to be just to show off the authors’ evidently impressive knowledge. Despite this, I enjoyed the novel, especially the multiple narrative format which was written very effectively. Overall, an engaging read and one I would recommend.

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