Sunday, December 18, 2005

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke), by Guest Reviewer Jim

Your basic 800-page book falls into one of three categories. First are the ones that seem interesting in theory, but after it becomes clear around page 10 that no one has a gun to your head and you don’t have the first clue what the hell’s going on, can be safely set aside (see Finnegans Wake) (or actually, since this is Book Reviews for Real People, maybe don’t). Second are the ones that you’ve always heard are good, pick up, and turn out to love, even if as a tip it helps to skim the chapters where Russian aristocrats argue endlessly over “the peasant question” (see Anna Karenina). Third are the ones that when you’re done you actually wish were longer.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell falls into the third category. It’s no exaggeration to say that upon reaching page 782 I seriously considered flipping back to page 1 and reading it straight through again. It’s the kind of book that, to paraphrase one of the blurbs on the back, isn’t read so much as lived in. I’m not sure it’s to everyone’s taste (Maria glanced at it and shortly handed it back to me), but I for one thought it was so compelling and singular and terrifically well done that a Guest Review was in order.

It takes place in Britain in the early nineteenth century, partly during the Napoleonic Wars, in a world where magic was a formerly commonplace phenomenon. The tradition is now carried only by magicians who do no magic--theorists who “read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic,” “gentleman-magicians, which is to say that they never harmed any one by magic--nor done any one the slightest good.” Magic has the reputation of being a tedious and not particularly useful thing for a person to do.

Enter Mr. Norrell, a timid, fussy late-middle-aged man who has spent half his life tracking down every magic book he can find and the other half shut up in his library reading them, and has taught himself how to actually do magic. After some scuffling with the local magician society he moves to London to pursue his ultimate goal, bringing the magician profession back into respectability, by entering high society and assisting in the war. He’s not very successful at this at first (social skills are not Mr. Norrell’s strong suit), but does ultimately achieve renown as the Foremost Magician of the Age (mainly by default). Eventually a younger man, Jonathan Strange, having followed Norrell’s magic along with everyone else in Britain, takes an interest in magic, discovers he has an aptitude for it, and manages to convince Norrell to take him on as a student.

This much is covered on the jacket copy, and it would be unfair (not to mention impossible) to continue any sort of synopsis, but suffice to say much satisfying trouble ensues, particularly involving a cheerfully insane fairy-creature referred to only as “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair” and the semi-legendary originator of English magic, John Uskglass, better known as the Raven King.

The really marvelous things about the book are how absolutely convincing its world and characters are. Although this is never specified, the impression I had is that the book was supposedly “written” toward the end of the eighteenth century, and it has just enough anachronistic spelling (“chuse” for “choose,” “sopha” for “sofa”) to give the flavor of the time and place without being obtrusive. Footnotes scattered throughout offer, among other things, citations of books later written by some characters about other characters and amusing little side-stories about terms or incidents mentioned in passing in dialogue, which are generally delightfully weird and often hilarious. (At one point a character mentions a spell called “the Unrobed Ladies.” The footnote begins “Like many spells with unusual names, the Unrobed Ladies was a good deal less exciting than it sounded.” Heh.) It’s full of the dust and smells of the place, and seamlessly mixes imagination with history (the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron feature as prominent characters, and even mad King George III makes an appearance); it’s not a page-turner of the Harry Potter variety, but the voice is always compelling and the wit dryly British in the best possible way. Particularly striking are the descriptions of the magic when it happens, which tends to be unobtrusive and difficult to spot but is often accompanied by odd sensations--like, to give one example that for some reason leaps to mind, “it was as if the shadows had all turned and faced another way.”

I didn’t end up going back to page 1 just yet--it is a library book, after all--but I suspect this will be another of those ones I find myself coming back to every year or two (see Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), and as far as I'm concerned can't be recommended enough.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been meaning to read this book. While the review definitely steered me in the positive direction, it was your inclusion of Franzen that led me to confirm that we are on the same, er, page, in the way of context and taste.

So, I plan to buy it, now. Thank you.

That said, i can't recommend enough Strong Motion, also by Franzen, superior, even, in my humble opinion, to The Corrections. Sadly, though, it is not quite as long.