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Fear this book? Or long to behold it?
on 4 August 2005
This is Susannah Clarke's first novel, and it is a tremendous literary achievement.
As the title suggests, the novel centres on the turbulent relationship between two 19th-century magicians, Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange, and is set in a fictitious England, like ours in all respects except that magic works and fairies are real. Norrell seeks to keep magical knowledge for the privileged few only (basically, himself), and Strange seeks to expand magical knowledge to everyone who wants it (but is frustrated in his learning because Norrell has bought up all the magical books and keeps them locked up in his own library where no-one can see them). Along the way they meet a host of characters: the cynical Lascelles, the weaselly Drawlight, the devious Childermass, the wild-eyed tattooed Vinculus, the mysterious Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, the sensible Arabella (Strange's wife), the humble Stephen Black, Lord and Lady Pole, the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, and the King of England. Strange and Norrell's relationship gets entangled in the lives of all these people (and more besides).
Stylistically the book is a triumph. Clarke succeeds perfectly in writing a 19th-century novel, complete with all the period cues you would expect. There is great authenticity in word usage and phraseology, as well as an Anglocentric viewpoint of the whole world which is entirely in keeping with the tone. History and fiction are blended seamlessly. To me it reads a little like Dickens, complete with humour (even parody) so subtle that you could easily miss it. Like Dickens, the plot of the book spans many years of the characters' lives. This is all a refreshing change from today's airport-blockbuster work.
This works both for and against the book. The style suits the type of narrative well and adds to the atmosphere. However, the multiple sub-plots, and the host of minor characters we need to keep track of, can at times be irritating and distracting, and the pace of the book is at times frustratingly slow.
The stiff-upper-lip narrative occasionally gives way to genuine moments of suspense, of horror and of pathos, but these are comparatively few in such a long book. The humour is of the wry-smirk type rather than the guffaw type. The pace and suspense build toward the end, and the denouement, whilst unexpected in some aspects, is quite in keeping with the style of the book, leaving plenty of room for a sequel.
This is a book with impressive depth and scholarship; the characters are flawlessly drawn and solidly rounded; the plot is intricate and often fresh. But overall, there is something which is slightly lacking. For me it lacks that page-turning imperative, at least partly because it takes so long to get anywhere.
I am certain that this book would not be so successful, if not for the adventures of a certain schoolboy wizard, whose author has done a great deal to improve the popularity of this genre.