Monday, August 11, 2014

book review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

The backstory: The Blazing World is on the 2014 Booker Prize longlist.

The basics: Visual artist Harriet Burden and her work have long been in the shadow of her artist husband. When she recruits three young, male artists to show her work under their name, the men are heralded as brilliant and inventive artists.

My thoughts: Hustvedt arranges this novel as a series of (fictional, obviously) texts put together in an edited volume. There are contributions from Harriet's journals; art critics; previously published interviews and reviews; narratives from her children, her therapist and best friend; people who knew the male artists; and the male artists themselves. The degree of difficulty in this novel is incredibly high. Hustvedt made me forget I was reading fiction. This novel reads like nonfiction or journalism. It often felt investigative; I wanted to see where the story ended, and I had to keep reminding myself Harriet Burden and her experiment aren't real. It's a testament to Hustvedt's writing and confidence that she convincingly writes from so many voices and in so many different styles.

Partially because the text is written in a nonfiction style, it's often quite dense and filled with explanatory footnotes, yet the pacing flowed well. Most of the pieces are relatively short. The longer ones are broken up with other pieces in between. Interviews read more quickly because of the page spacing. I majored in art history and women's studies, so the philosophical bent of this novel was right up my alley. I do wonder if those without an interest or knowledge in contemporary art will find this novel as accessible as those who do, but ultimately I think they will. This novel is about art and gender, but it's an exploration of so many more ideas that those who like literature as an exercise in thinking will find much to ponder here.

Favorite passages:  "Had there ever been been a work of art that wasn't laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener, however learned and refined?"

"That is all there is--perception and memory. But it’s ragged."

The verdict: The Blazing World is a bold, smart, accomplished novel. It's a literary feat, and it's one I both enjoyed and admire. As I reflect on the reading experience, however, I'm struck more by how much Hustvedt impressed me. The technical feats are more impressive than the story itself. The idea, which is both brilliant and brilliantly executed, is the draw here. Hustvedt uses these characters to explore ideas about reality, perception, art, meaning, worth, love, and life more than to tell a story.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 369 pages
Publication date: March 11, 2014
Source: library (I received an e-galley from the publisher, but it was formatted incorrectly and thus un-readable)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Blazing World from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Siri Hustvedt's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I gave up on this one because of a bad case of brain drain earlier in the year, but in general I love everything Hustvedt does. Must try again.

  2. I've never read Hustvedt, but i've had my eye on this one for a while. Making the long list for the Booker has only made me circle it more ferociously. Thanks.


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