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Known for her powerful writing of both fiction nonfiction books, Siri Hustvedt has earned her reputation as a brilliant thinker and articulate writer. The Blazing World is strong proof that her talents are unmatched in the genre.

Book Review: ‘The Blazing World,’ by Siri Hustvedt

Known for her powerful writing of both fiction nonfiction books, Siri Hustvedt has earned her reputation as a brilliant thinker and articulate writer. This is not her first work of fiction, and The Blazing Worldis strong proof that her talents are unmatched in the genre.

BlazingWorldCombining an unusual story arc along with tricks of the mind, the reader is drawn into the story of The Blazing World as it begins with an ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to the published notebooks and journals of the fictional artist, Harriet Burden. We ponder what’s to come, as the editor puzzles over how to represent the artist’s life through excerpts of her exhaustive journals. He remains both fascinated and frustrated by the effort to catalog Burden’s journals and records pertaining to her artwork.

Burden, perhaps of sound mind, perhaps not, creates a scheme, over time with several different men. The experiment is her attempt to confirm whether art is more valued when produced by male artists. Her clever schemes may have also changed the character of the art she made, becoming almost a ‘hermaphroditic self’ belonging neither to her or the men she chose to represent her art as their own.

In our society, is there an unconscious interpretation of art based on artists’ gender, race, or celebrity status? If so, does this influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art, and perhaps prejudice the art world’s view of an artist’s work?

The construction of this novel includes an impressive plot with chapters in the various voices of the artist, her family, and many people who knew her. Each is thorough and convincing and articulate. There is a sense Hustvedt may have been delighted with her own skill at writing this book, with such impeccably developed characters. The reader begins wishing it was a movie, as well as a book. The Blazing World would be a great art film.

In time, Burden, not suffering from multiple personalities, but perhaps as a result of psychotherapy, seemed to harbor protean artist selves that she felt needed bodies. Her daughter Maisie realized this when she had a startling encounter with a stuffed art object, life-size, dressed in her father’s clothes.  “Husband dolls,” her mother called them, feeling it was normal to have created them in her grief over his death.

Many major art galleries were reluctant to show woman artist’s collections, although the number of women artists has grown significantly. Ironic, given that half of those galleries are run by women. The realities of the art business, and male domination both in art shows and with prices commanded by their work, show this gender bias in full blazing color.  As Burden explained to the first male partner to participate in her scheme, they would be a twosome researching the nature of perception.

Such gender stereotypes give the book its depth as it also explores Burden’s relationship with several men. The men who show her work, and the many stories written in first person by others in the form of “writer statements” are as diverse and well formed as classic Chekhov stories.

Each of these men are introduced in unique circumstances, and have to consider exhibiting her work as their own, with possible repercussions affecting their reputation, or for better or worse, becoming a bigger success through this fraud than with their own work.

Burden enjoys the subterfuge and the chance to expose the critics, when all she ever wanted to do was to be understood. The Blazing World is a delightful, quirky story that shares many truths about women in the arts, and the struggles they encounter in rising to fame. It would work as well in a motion picture, as it does in a novel.

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