It was with some trepidation that I picked up Susanna Clarke’s first novel. After all, there were high expectations. Time magazine ranked it the #1 book of 2004 and threw out this blurb:
“Ravishing…superb… combines the dark mythology of fantasy with the delicious social comedy of Jane Austen into a masterpiece of the genre that rivals Tolkien.”
How can any writer – especially a first-time novelist – live up to that hype?
The answer, of course, is they can’t.
But I picked up the book anyway – no easy feat at 846 pages. Heavy enough to give you wrist cramps while reading in bed. The problem with literary critics is that most of them prefer high-brow fiction, which is why mediocre novelists like David Guterson and Paul Auster are fawned over. Guterson and Auster can’t write worth a damn, but because they write books for critics – and not readers – they generate wonderful reviews.
Anyway, I had my doubts that the Time reviewer was a huge fan of Tolkien or if he’d read the trilogy in the first place. Because Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is no Lord of the Rings. Neither is it Pride and Prejudice nor Sense and Sensibility.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to like in the novel. Clarke paints an exquisite morbid scene better than most and her passages describing England in the years between 1806 and 1817 are expertly rendered. The gloomy moors, the bleak landscapes, the gray fogs all transport the reader through time and space. Her world and the magic that resides in it feel real.
You believe that Mr. Norrell can create illusionary warships to fool Napoleon’s navy. You feel like, yes, Jonathan Strange could walk through a mirror and stroll down a dark, meandering fairy road. As a reader, you come to realize that you not only want to believe in magic, but you’re being convinced of it. The best part of the novel are the characters – flawed, three dimensional and as crystal clear as your next door neighbors.
The two main characters, the magicians Strange and Norrell, are unforgettable. Mr. Norrell the insecure, conceited academic with the social graces of a software engineer and Jonathan Strange the eccentric, emotionally distant know-it-all tear though the cover of the novel, take you by the shoulders, and shake you.
Unfortunately, the pacing is slow, especially in the first few hundred pages when nothing seems to move. The action seems stuck in molasses and you begin to put down the book for longer and longer periods. In fact, I put the book down on my bed stand and read a mystery novel before coming back to it. It was difficult to stick with it.
But finally, Clarke finds her form and the novel ignites – but much too deep inside and requiring too much patience from the reader. But make it through to this point and you’ll find that you suddenly can’t put the book down. The build-up becomes intense and Clarke keeps a lot of balls in the air regarding the plot – and for the most part resolves most of the loose ends.
The ending, however, flounders and ultimately doesn't satisfy. So would I recommend it? Not really. That sounds wishy-washy, but there are some readers – those who enjoy the unconventional, the nuance, and a perfectly created fantasy world who I would give a recommendation to try the book. But for most readers, Clarke simply asks too much – too much time, too much effort.
And there’s not enough magic in the novel to fix that.
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Labels: book review, literature