Thursday, May 21, 2009

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke


A friend of mine lent me this book more than a year ago. Because it is nearly 800 pages long, it got shunted aside during my preparation for the Crusade and Jihad course and the subsequent school year. I never gave up, however, because even though my tolerance for fantasy has been reduced over the years, this tale of two English wizards trying to revive English magic during the Regency era fascinated me with its sheer storytelling vigor and its mastery of the English language. This is a book where one character can write a review of a book by another for the Edinburgh Review and do a convincing job of it. However, much of the book's charm is subtler than that. Take, just for one example, this passage from page 704, when Mr. Norrell is rushing from London by carriage to Yorkshire to confront Jonathan Strange. Here is what happens when he reaches the toll barrier at Islington:

Mr. Norrell gazed idly at a shop window ablaze with lamplight. It was a superior sort of shop with an uncluttered interior and elegant modern chairs for the customers to sit upon; in fact it was so very refined an establishment that it was by no means clear what it sold. A heap of brightly colored somethings lay tossed upon a chair, but whether they were shawls or materials for gowns or something else entirely, Mr. Norrell could not tell. There were three women in the shop. One was a customer -- a smart, stylish person in a spencer like a Hussar's uniform, complete with fur trim and frogging. On her head was a little Russian fur cap; she kept touching the back of it as if she feared it would fall off. The shopkeeper was more discreetly dressed in a plain dark gown, and there was besides a little assistant who looked on respectfully and bobbed a nervous little curtsy whenever anyone chanced to look at her. The customer and the shopkeeper were not engaged in business; they were talking together with a a great deal of animation and laughter. It was a scene as far removed from Mr. Norrell's usual interests as it was possible to be, yet it led to his heart in a way he could not understand. He thought fleetingly of Mrs. Strange and Lady Pole. Then something flew between him and the cheerful scene -- something like a piece of the darkness made solid. He thought that it was a raven.

The toll was paid. Davey shook the reins and the carriage moved on towards the Archway.

There is more storytelling here than in many whole novels. I have not had much luck recommending this to my friends, since an awful lot of them have read it already. But if this passage appeals to you, this book may be for you.

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