I finished listening to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell today. I’d gotten the audio book from Audible.com for listening on my trips to NC and couldn’t wait til my drive to finish it. It was, um, about 30 hours of listening. The narrator was terrific, by the way.
It was a very good book, and a special one. But I’ll get into the specialness later. The story and characters are very entertaining, engrossing even, but the specialness is in how the book is crafted.
Click for more, wherein I ramble about the book, but don’t give any spoilers that I know of …
In the website’s interview with the author, she confesses a deep love for Jane Austen, and it shows here. What she’s written is a sort of novel of manners, Austen-style, but with an epic length and some Clive Barker mixed in (she doesn’t mention Barker, though, but there are very Barkeresque moments of surreal cruelty). She does mention Alan Moore, and the novel does have a sort of ersatz retro artifact quality that Moore plays with especially in his “Extraordinary Gentlemen” titles. In fact it’s this approach to the book that makes it more intriguing that it might otherwise have been. That she writes it in an elevated, 19th century voice, that makes you wait for the payoff of each moment. It’s not so much a page-turner as a chapter-turner.
This book requires patience, and I don’t know that I would’ve had the patience for it had I tried actually reading it in book form. But that’s my own peculiar bent — I have very little patience for carrying around large books these days anyway, and I’ve never been able to make it through 19th century prose with any alacrity. So it’s not a fault of the novel, by any means. It’s just a confession. I’m glad, then, that I got it in audio form, because I was a captive audience, and it didn’t disappoint me.
The book really is a novel of manners in many ways. It shares a deft sense of social humor, situational comedy and moments of delicious irony, just like the parlor novels after which this element of the book is modeled. In this way it’s very much like Trollope, only instead of rectors and mayors, the parlor is full of magicians.
Into this Clarke drops moments of truly contemporary horror — stuff you wouldn’t have read in Austen or Trollope. The gothic moors, twisted trees and lonely manses are all very Bronte, but the moments of true horror feel very modern. These are the portions that feel more like Barker or Moore. But they never feel jarring — I think Clarke cleverly uses this more modern sensibility when she wants to break the reader out of the languid 19th century English headspace.
The characters are delightful, and complicated, but not full-fleshed. That is, they still read like parlor characters — more Jane Austen than George Eliot. They have enough dimension that you are genuinely interested in what happens to them, and intrigued at their motivations and history, but you don’t get the feeling of a real person. This, I find, is something that tends to separate genre fiction from “contemporary literary fiction” most often … the characters feel more like they’re serving the story rather than the other way around. I don’t pass any judgment on this distinction, though — it’s what makes genre stories work as well as they do, and often a necessary choice. There are, of course, some books that take literary character-driven stories into genre territory (Chabon’s “Cavalier and Clay” and Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude”), and it’s happening on TV too, like X-Files, Smallville, Buffy and Deadwood, which in varying degrees put character development higher up the food chain than similar TV shows of the past.
What’s fascinating is how Clarke makes an end run around this whole trend, and creates a compelling universe, a sort of alternate-England, where even the writer is a sort of period character (and even addresses the ‘dear reader’ on occasion in the first half of the book, but oddly tapers off of this habit in the later chapters). And the real achievement of the novel is precisely this alternate reality, where England has the same history it has now, except with an additional dimension folded into it like frothed cream into a batter, so that it disappears into its substance.
Unlike the Harry Potter books, where the magical world and the normal one are kept quite separate, or the Lord of the Rings universe where Tolkien invented a mythological Anglo-European past, Clarke’s England is precisely the England of the early 19th century, worrying over Napoleon and the colonies, grappling with the challenges of becoming the one world superpower, but with a history full of faery. And what seems to me a subtle and wonderful bit of irony throughout the book is that England, even full of magic, is still very English. Magicians can be functionaries and fussbudgets, bookish eccentrics and spoiled-but-honest sons of landed gentry.
But beyond this Englishness, the clever construction of the book lends it a kind of authenticity. By this I mean its footnotes. The plot of the book really is about books themselves. In fact, the soul of the story is in its books, and so Clarke does her best to make the book in your hands (or at least, the book I listened to) behave like one of those books. Throughout, there are footnotes referencing other tales, other volumes, bits of history and legend, some of which are longer than the pages of text they illuminate. Clarke deftly paces these so that at certain points, suspense or speed or anxiety in the story are forced to slow down a little, which itself feels like a very English thing to do: as if to say, “well now, it’s all fine and good to get excited at what’s going on in the story, but we’re not here to be excited, we’re here to be instructed or enlightened.” And the approach is unbelievably effective. The alternate version of England is so convincing, I found myself checking Google for bits of English history that sounded so fascinating that I wanted to read more about them, only to find they weren’t real at all.
The real achievement of this book, then, is that invention of another England, captured in this novel that feels like just another one written from the period or soon after. And the resultant tug on the reader to find more about what feels like it must certainly be the *real* history of England that we’ve somehow misplaced. This achievement seems so complete, the excellence of the books plot and characters seem to pale a bit in comparison.