|Submitted by onions |
(Mar 28, 2005)
In this tale of alternate history, magic has just about died out in nineteenth Century England. Then two real magicians meet. As they labour together to revive English Magic, meeting and aiding in the process Wellington, George III, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Pole, they are continually beset by professional jealousy, personal tragedy and a a very annoying evil Fairy.
Susanna Clarke's style has been rightly compared to Jane Austen and Dickens. Part of the charm is her arch Victorian narrator style (complete with oldfashioned spelling and endless footnotes) that contrasts wildly in its comfortable reasonableness with the gothic, mystic and Arthurian elements of her tale. Think Austen meets Byron meets Sir Walter Scott. This 800-page humdinger swings constantly between a conversational piece, pastiche, mystic lyricism, gothic setting and adventure.
Unfortunately, it takes quite some time to get started. The first part of three lets us meet Mr. Norrell, an emotional miser with the soul of a banker. He is impossible to like, but we spend 200 pages with him. In the second part, we meet suave and clever Jonathan Strange who is meant to be the Likeable Hero. He succeeds, chiefly by virtue of not being Norrell. We follow him through hundred pages of Napoleonic war adventures. Part three makes all of this worth it through in an astonishing burst of imagination and masterful storytelling.
Throughout, the somewhat turgid pacing is saved by a host of interesting inventions and weird side characters: a man who is a book, the raven king, Fairy landscapes, mini-treatises on magic, and a very original evil fairy, to name just a few. For those, Clark draws on old English fairy tales and beliefs.
Clarke's great strength are the pointed dialogue and situational comedy. Often something that is very unfunny for the characters, will make the reader laugh because of it's appropriateness.
Modern readers will on the other hand will miss a certain depth of character. It is sad that that inspite of madness, mortal fear, and grief all being described, the strongest emotion in the whole book is Norrell's jealousy of Strange. It is also a very male book. The female characters are all stereotypes: The resourceful ingenue, the witty wife, the invalid. Even Strange does not have much to make him three-dimensional, his actions when trying to safe his wife and turning mad are simply actions. The emotions do not come through.