Dazed and Bemused

Drunken recollections, boring anecdotes, and obscure references

Saturday, November 20, 2004

I'm spinning around but I feel alright

So, yesterday I promised to try and explain the appeal of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I'm not sure I can succeed, but I'll try. This is a first novel from Susanna Clarke, though she has previously published some shorter pieces. It is set during the early 1800s, around the time of the English Regency, and the Napoleanic wars. The once glorious tradition of English magic has been lost, and the books written by the once great are argued over by groups or societies of theoretical magicians, mostly bored gentleman. One night at the regular meeting of one of these societies, a servant appears, and proposes a contract. His master will perform a feat of true, practical magic, but if he succeeds, the society must disband, and it's members cease to call themselves magicians.

Without telling you everything that happens, I don't how well I can describe things. Mr. Norrell, the first magician, moves to London to work for the government, and is introduced to London society by a pair of aristocratic rogues whose characters will be very familiar to anyone who has read novels of the period. Mr. Norrell is stodgy, opiniated, and difficult, but the government soon finds him invaluable in the war against the French.

Jonathan Strange is a much younger man. A dilettante aristocrat, he is inspired by hearing of Mr. Norrell's exploits, and begins to practice magic on his own.

The first part of the book is told almost in a series of interconnected vignettes, which introduce us to other characters, and very slowly advance the plot. Some of these make for wonderful stories in their own right. Sometimes charming, eerie, thought-provoking, none of them are boring. The language is very much in tune with the early 1800s setting, and the book is extensively and entertainingly footnoted (fond memories of Jack Vance were evoked for me).

This is a wonderful story, I'm struggling to try to explain it's appeal without resorting to reading the whole thing aloud. I will say that when I finished the final page I was saddened that it was over, and sorely tempted to begin again from the start.

Neil Gaiman: "Holidays are wonderful things. If you go on holiday you can read Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which, in my probably biased but not entirely uninformed opinion, is the best English fantasy novel written in the last seventy years: over 800 pages, and when it ends you're just sad there aren't another 800)"

Also enjoyed by many Ted Leo fans and Ted Leo himself. Check it out, kids.