[Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury USA, 2004, ISBN: 1-58234-416-7]
Before leading in to this review, I think maybe a little well-earned catharsis would be appropriate. I’m a lifelong SF/F reader. I cut my teeth on Heinlein, dabbled in epic fantasy, lingered in juvenilia well into my twenties, and look with guilty fondness upon a score of inept, impossibly bad books with which I still can’t bring myself to part. Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon is quite cozy with first edition, signed copies of Lucius Shepard’s Colonel Rutherford’s Colt and Steve Rasnick Tem’s The Book of Days. My bookshelves hold tattered copies of books by Zahn and Stover and Moorcock along with Hemingway and Defoe and Austen. I have scads of genre-cred, and more than anything, I want our literature of the fantastic to be taken seriously by the literati as much as anyone else. Which brings us to Susanna Clarke’s cyclopean tome of magic, redemption and postmodern sensibility, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
It’s not a horrible book. Whatever else you get from this review, please believe that I didn’t hate it. I’m the voice of dissent in the paean to its bountiful charms because I think its aspirations to that most elusive of beasties, literary credibility, might very well be behind the dissatisfaction I felt with its execution. To be blunt, I think it overreaches a bit, and all else follows from that.
In short, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell chronicles the metafictional return of magic to a metafictional England. Gilbert Norrell is the last practical magician in the world. Magic, once commonplace throughout Northern England, has dwindled and all but died out with the disappearance of the true lord of the Northern realm, John Uskglass, the Raven King. The story revolves around the opposite machinations that Norrell and his student, Jonathan Strange, engineer in their efforts to return magic to its former prominence. In grand epic fashion, there are a half-dozen ancillary plotlines that parallel the main story and converge at the appropriate moments. There is intrigue and skullduggery and tragedy, and everyone gets what they have coming in the end, which is all quite satisfactory, of course. If it had been written that way, I’d probably have crowed in delight and you’d be reading a very different review.
It’s hard to put, in so many words, just what bothered me about this book, which might lead you to think that there’s nothing to it at all. The characters are believable and interesting, the writing, period-style prose and quite florid, is nonetheless lively and engaging. The story itself? Well it’s a corker, really. I love the idea of this alternate England, and a later interview of Clarke in Locus, in which she elucidates some of the whys and the wherefores of her world, makes me want to like it even more. Heck, I even liked the footnotes; in some instances they trumped the narrative itself. But still, the abstract analysis of the thing aside, in the end, the last page read and all of its secrets unveiled, I put this book down and felt...hollow.
Let’s be frank, this is a brick of a book. The hardcover is 642 pages and heavy as three normal books. It has heft, does Clarke’s epic, but I’m left asking, “Why?” As much as she has going on in the story, there’s a sense about it of being puffed up with air. Like a French pastry, it looks so good on the outside, so filling and decadent. And yet, in the end, I’m still hungry and not a little disappointed.
Along the maundering path that Clarke takes us, from York to London to Waterloo and back, I have not one strong impression, not one favorite scene or beloved character to which I might return to, again and again, as I do with all of my favorite books. There wasn’t one thing in this book in which I could raise myself up to anything resembling excitement or jubilation. No fascination or joyous revelation, no indelible memory to which I might take away as a token of the lost hours I spent reading it. There was only the constant plodding, the metronomic beat-beat-beat of a well-written but poorly wrought story that simply couldn’t commit to the joy of its central conceit. The pace of the narrative clings to a consistency that works for the first 100 pages, grows wearying as we forge on and becomes an interminable water torture toward the climax and denouement. Where other renderings would romp with joyous abandon through Clarke’s fantastic landscape, she chose to dawdle and backtrack as if afraid of what lay ahead and unable to bear facing it. This book was a Sunday drive in Grandma’s Lincoln Town Car, which is fine for a quick outing, but cruel in anything this gimungously long.
In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I felt Clarke angled to construct a delicate, hyper-realistic dollhouse of a novel at which we could marvel and exclaim and return to in fascination again and again. There’s certainly a sense of craftsmanship in the obsessive detail and the stratified relief of the story. It’s only that, I’m afraid, what she accomplished by her efforts is more akin to a giant warehouse in which some very valuable stuff is stored, but walled off and separate, here and there, and the rest of the space is devoted to nothing but air, and the echoing emptiness that follows.