Saturday, December 03, 2005

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

by Susanna Clarke

Well this mammoth book has taken me over three months to read, but it was well worth it. Despite being a quirky fantasy novel this book has met with quite a bit of mainstream success, and deservedly so.

The premise of the novel is that of an alternate history: in ages long past magic, magicians and fairies were commonplace in England, but none now (the early 1800s) exist, although scholars take the subject very seriously. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are the first English magicians in four hundred years. The books' clever conceit is that it is written in the style of the novels of the time (think Jane Austen), so these bizarre, fantastic situations are described in a very prim and proper manner.

Clarke is a very witty writer so the whole novel (all 900 pages) is a real breeze to read. Just one classic passage:

“The Foreign Secretary was quite a peerless orator. No matter how low the Government stood in the estimation of everyone, when the Foreign Secretary stood up and spoke – ah! how different everything seemed then! How quickly was every bad thing discovered to be the fault of the previous administration (an evil set of men who wedded general stupidity to wickedness of purpose). As for the present Ministry, the Foreign Secretary said that not since the days of Antiquity had the world seen gentlemen so virtuous, so misunderstood and so horribly misrepresented by their enemies.”

It struck a chord in the run up to the election when I read it a few months ago at any rate. (But not so much with our current Minister of Foreign Affairs of course.)

She has a lot of fun poking fun at the prejudices of the era, particularly the disdain for novelists:

“[T]he other Ministers considered that to employ a magician was one thing, novelists were quite another and they would not stoop to it.”,

and the quirks of the British in general. For such an upbeat book it was perhaps a little long, but that's the only criticism I could make of it.

While this book was mainly light hearted the author has a flair for unsettling descriptions of the supernatural. The magic performed by the protagonists was pretty benign, but their otherworldly antagonists were appropriately sinister.

The ending leaves rather a lot unexplained, so perhaps she's planning to write a sequel. Or maybe not, British authors are weird like that.

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