Posted by: kshayes513 | September 4, 2009

Reading: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange coverI can count on my fingers the books that have transported me so entirely to a unique time and place, that I thought about the book for days afterwards. The last one was Ursula K Le Guin’s Lavinia. The one before that, I can’t even remember.

As with Lavinia, as with The Lord of the Rings, and precious few others, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is like no other book I’ve ever read. Its opening is quiet, even a bit dry, as a group of 19th century English gentlemen, who call themselves “theoretical magicians,” call upon the reclusive Mr. Norrell to inspect his library of books about English magic, a science they consider lost 300 years ago.  From the moment that Mr. Norrell proves to the magicians that his own magic is far from theoretical, Clarke begins to unveil a landscape in which the magicians – and their families – gradually discover that English magic, and the magical realms, are far from lost.

In some ways, this reads like a historical novel. Real persons, places and events stride through the narrative, as much at home as the fictional ones:  mad King George III, Byron, Wellington, 19th century London society, Spain and Venice and Britain’s war with Napoleon; and the details of personalities and places seem on target. Historical novelists are worldbuilders in their own way, and if Clarke wanted to write straight history, she’d be a bestseller in that genre, too.

Clarke’s fantastical worldbuilding, though, achieves a much rarer level of accomplishment. Alongside the real people and places, woven through them with just as much conviction, she sets out a history of English magic all the way back to Merlin. This history is so meticulous, and presented so matter-of-factly (in discussions among the magicians, and in prodigious footnotes of invented scholarship), that I had to double-check on Wikipedia, to make sure that I hadn’t somehow overlooked an entire set of real English legends.

For me, a significant part of the novel’s charm and strangeness is its language. The narrative style is a perfect blend of Dickens and Austen, so well executed that it’s hard to believe this book was written in the 21st century. Prose worldbuilders, take note: this style of language belongs to a time when a short communication was a handwritten note, not a text message; and the speediest means of travel was a fast horse. The language of the book makes you slow down to the pace of that time, and I think it contributes a lot to Clarke’s success in immersing the reader so entirely in that era.

I realize that some readers may find this style more of an obstacle than an asset. To you, I say also: Slow down. Take your time with the language and let it expand in your mind until you start to feel at home with it. There’s no hurry. I usually read novels at a pace of 70-100 pages an hour, and can finish many in a single evening if I have the leisure. Jonathan Strange took me over 3 weeks, reading no more than a chapter or two each day. That was all I wanted to read at one sitting; then I needed to stop and absorb and enjoy before continuing.

As Michael Dirda said in his Washington Post review of the book:

“Many books are to be read, some are to be studied, and a few are meant to be lived in for weeks.”

And isn’t that what we worldbuilders are always hoping to find in the work of others, and to create for ourselves: a world meant to be lived in.

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