Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book 1 – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke

Alas! Since Print Is Dead reviewed JSaMN back in 2007, I finally had the chance to read it myself after picking it up at a local used bookstore. I was reluctant to borrow it from the library, as I didn’t think I’d read it within a 3 week period (and I always forget to renew).

As dsgran said: “The problem with trying to read 50 books in a year is that it discourages you from picking up a tome like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which weighs in at just over 1000 pages… Tough descision - I could easily read three other books in the time it would take to tread JSaMN.”

Indeed! I couldn’t finish JSaMN in time for 2009 either. Print is Dead also provides a good story summation, so I will just say that this book was truly a delightful read from start to finish. Naturally, with a book of this length, there were some slow moments, but overall, it helped that the writing was very well-written. Clarke wears her literary influences on her sleeve, whether it’s Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, or JRR Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin, yet she spins something remarkably unique and wonderful out of these influences. She creates such a rich and encyclopedically detailed universe of an alternate and magical Napoleonic Europe, that towards the end of the novel, I was wishing I didn’t have to leave it. It’s easy to criticize the author for not spending enough effort to tighten the narrative or trim details off here and there. But the quality of the writing is always consistently high, even during the slow, overly detailed bits.

Some reviewers describe JSaMN as a realist fantasy because Clarke populates her alternate universe with real early 19th century figures, such as Lord Byron and the mad King George III, and she grounds her fantasy by referencing actual historical events and even mundane objects, such as Wedgwood tableware. I found this particular Wiki reference to be quite telling:

“This realism has led other reviewers, such as Polly Shulman, to argue that Clarke’s book is more of an historical fiction, akin to the works of Patrick O’Brian. As she explains, ‘Both Clarke's and O'Brian's stories are about a complicated relationship between two men bound together by their profession; both are set during the Napoleonic wars; and they share a dry, melancholy wit and unconventional narrative shape.’ Shulman sees fantasy and historical fiction as similar because both must follow rigid rules or risk a breakdown of the narrative.”

I totally agree. There was a brief passage early in the novel where Mr Norrell aids the British Navy by tricking the French with magic. The combination of an O’Brian-esque ship battle and Clarke’s eloquent description of magic made that section quite memorable for me:

   After two hours it stopped raining and in the same moment the spell broke, which Perroquet and the Admiral and Captain Jumeau knew by a curious twist of their senses, as if they had tasted a string quartet, or been, for a moment, deafened by the sight of the colour blue. For the merest instant the rain-ships became mist-ships and then the breeze gently blew them apart.
   The Frenchmen were alone upon the empty Atlantic.


The author’s backstory on the making of JSaMN was quite interesting to read as well, as Clarke was a relative unknown. She labored for ten years writing her epic novel, and only during her spare time, as her full-time job was at a publishing company editing cookbooks. According to Wikipedia, it was a daily struggle for Clarke to keep up with her self-imposed writing schedule. Rather than write in a chronological fashion, she wrote in nonlinear fragments and tried to stitch them together.

Ultimately, Clarke wrote for herself and “felt that if I went back and started at the beginning, [the novel] would lack depth, and I would just be skimming the surface of what I could do. But if I had known it was going to take me ten years, I would never have begun. I was buoyed up by thinking that I would finish it next year, or the year after next.”

So in this context, it makes so much more sense that the scope and structure of JsaMN is what it is, which makes Clarke’s creation all the more unique and wonderful, in my opinion!

1 comment:

WalkerP said...

Sounds quite cool. This makes me want to read it. For such a long book, you certainly plowed through it pretty efficiently!