Saturday, December 18, 2004


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

My book of the year for 2004 is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. It is set in the early 1800s, mainly in England. But this is not the England of history, although the Duke of Wellington appears, along with other historical characters. Neither is it the England of Jane Austen, although the language in which it is described is certainly Austenesque. Rather, this is an England, and a world, in which magic exists, is studied and, by a few, practiced.

The novel works wonderfully, to a large extent because of the way Clarke's prose captures the country, the period, and the magic. Here is a sample:
Imagine... the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.
Another sample is available online here.

This second sample illustrates one of ways in which Clarke shows us the world she has constructed; she tells us stories from it, often in footnotes.

I haven't said much about plot or character, because neither of them is driving this novel. The plot is a big story about the world, and the characters are pieces of the world. Clarke has more stories to tell about the world, and more pieces of it to show. She reveals this in an interview at her web site. The site also quotes some of the many favorable reviews the book has received. Most of these are from mainstream, rather than from genre-specific, sources.

But the best account of this book I've read is the review by the sf critic John Clute. As well as copious praise, he has a couple of criticisms, each concerning a way in which the book might have been trimmed. I disagree with his assertion that almost every scene in the first 300 pages should have been trimmed. I agree with his assertion that some trimming would have been in order later on in the novel, and that the Greysteel family, who we and Jonathan Strange don't meet until we are more than 500 pages into the novel, should have been cut out. Clarke's novel doesn't need every one of its 800 pages.

Having said that, I loved my 800-page visit to the England, and to the magical world, that Clarke has created. It is rare that I am so thoroughly engrossed by a novel.

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