Saturday, 15 June 2013

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

An all time favourite of mine, and just as enjoyable and immersive on what I think is my fourth time round the block (a book on tape this time, narrated wonderfully by Simon Prebble.)

It's set in the early nineteenth century in a similar England to the one history remembers - Wellington fighting Napoleon, George III tormented by madness, Lord Byron being insufferable.  It's the history in the book which is very different, detailing a past tied up with magic, magicians and faeries.  At the start of the novel magic has been gone from England for several hundred years, but one man - Mr Norrell - intends to bring it back.

Neither of the eponymous heroes are particularly heroic, but Gilbert Norrell is a real piece of work.  He's paranoid, selfish, vindictive, pompous, deathly dull, bordering on autistic and a tremendously poor judge of character.  And yet he's an amazingly realised and even likeable character.  His pupil, friend and rival Strange is much more in the romantic mold, but even he's a pain in the neck at times.  Their relationship is difficult, exhilarating and surprisingly touching.

But even more so than the characters, it's the world building which is the biggest triumph here.  The best part of 200 footnotes scattered throughout the book teach us - nugget by nugget - about the magicians of the past, the untrustworthiness of faeries, different forms of spells and - most enigmatic and fascinating of all - the Raven King John Uskglass who ruled the North of England for hundreds of years.  By the end it's like the reader has taken a course in magical history - you know your Martin Pale from your Ralph Stokesey and the relative usefulness of Belasis compared to Lanchester's Language of Birds.  It feels like there's a whole world in here.

I love Clarke's writing as well, with a beautiful sense of irony, wit, humanity and clarity.  It's a joy to read.  All the supporting characters are drawn so convincingly too - from Norrell's loyal, capable but sinister servant Childermass, to the deeply unpleasant Drawlight and Lascelles.  Best of all is the real villain of the piece, whose name we never learn.  Norrell tells Strange at one point (probably quoting from one of the books he guards so jealously) that faeries and men both have reason and magic in them.  Faeries are very strong in magic, but in human terms they're practically insane.  The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is a terrifying example of this.  And yet, in his kind and generous treatment of the black servant Stephen (unwanted as it may be) it comments on the insanity and cruelty of English society at the time.

As you can see - I can talk all day about this amazing book.  It's everything a fantasy novel should be.  Somehow, and I don't know how, the magic seems real.  It's a decade old now, and Clarke has published some short stories set in the same world (The Ladies of Grace Adieu) which are well worth a read, even if they sometimes feel like a collection of footnotes which didn't make the final cut of this book.  We are promised a sequel, but it's going to be a tough act to follow.