Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Since I finished library school, I’ve had this hankering to read fantasy fiction. Not just fantasy, but high fantasy. I want to read something where an entire universe has been created by the author, where people may not even be human and have weird and wonderful abilities. I wanted magic as high up as magic goes. While I listened to my teachers tell me that genre is not a “lesser” form of reading and is nothing to be ashamed of, still deep in my gut I feel a little embarrassed about it. I have a degree in English. For years I refused to read anything that wasn’t Canadian literary fiction (because who else is going to read nothing but Canadian literary fiction?). I have become something of a literary snob.

Except for these strange forays into out and out fantasy fiction, the kind with ugly covers that sit by the romance novels at the library. These are the ones that don’t even come out in hardcover half the time. The kind of books my sister looks at and says, “I don’t like stories about talking animals.” Those are the ones I want.

I am really trying to get over this snobbery about fantasy fiction. Having taken a stab at writing it, I understand that it’s no more or less difficult to write than literary fiction, and much of it is as well-written (or better) and filled with excellently drawn characters. Fantasy fiction stories stick closer to the general rules of writing, including complex plot mapping and so forth. There have been a few (famous) literary fiction books I have started and put down again because I found the style of writing sloppy, repetitive (in that ooo look what a pretty sentence that was! way), and tedious. I have the upmost respect for the fantasy fiction writers I know personally, so I don’t know what the chip on my shoulder is all about.

My sister gave me Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for Christmas. I’ve talked about this book before, but I’ve never really reviewed it properly. I needed it to sit in me for a while and trickle through my brain.

Honestly, this book is such a work of art. I’ve never read anything remotely like it. Susanna Clarke wrote the book as if it were a 19th century novel, and this actually doesn’t get tired. She not only uses the turns of phrase but also shies away from the sorts of topics that a 19th century novelist would shy away from; there is no overt sexuality in the book, and romance is all implied rather than explicit. I often felt that I was getting a very particular view on these characters, and missing out on other things, but I felt that that was just as it should be, given the nature of the narrative voice. And as a good 19th century novel would do, the narrative voice is granted character status in its own right. Rather than becoming distracting, the style and structure of the book makes you feel closer to the action rather than distanced from it. The long, roundabout, loping narrative style, not particularly episodic but not following a strict line to a single climax either, also feels right at home in the 19th century setting. But of course since it’s also set in England and involves magic, it’s been compared to Harry Potter. Just like how Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones are like, OMG the same book.

What I really like best about a good bit of fantasy fiction in when the author manages to weave the magic in so that it becomes something you just accept, like horse-drawn carriages in a historical novel. Strange and Norrell introduces you to the concept of magic as if it’s the concept of philosophy or history, or some odd form of metaphysics no one particularly cares about. For a good portion of the book the real cause of conflict isn’t magic or some otherworld or anything else, it’s just the stubborn nature of academics and the danger of having too much information in the hands of a single person. For a good portion fo this book I felt that it was really story for a librarian, all about access to information and the danger of withholding it. There is even a cautionary tale in there about withholding information that the experts deem “bad” or “wrong”.

But what sticks with me most about the book is the weird commonplaceness of the magic. The cruelest magic, I think, is the kind is that meshes your world with another, but only allows some people to see it. The eeriest parts of this book are when a complete innocent mentions seeing something so critical to the main characters, the answer to everything they need to know, but has no idea that anything magical has gone on at all. The danger of this innocent meandering between one dagerous world and another, always on the brink of enchantment or destruction; just the inching possibility of real damage is such a powerful narrative tool. It could get boring. It could get tired, sitting there all the time with this possibility but less dramatic action. When you can imagine worse than it is, that’s not great for a book. But somehow this book manages to avoid that pitfall.

And who would have thought that the auditory could have such an impact in text? This book has recurring sounds that just send chills down your spine when you “hear” them. A good book, fantasy or not, lets codes a sight, a sound, or a word so completely that when they casually introduce them throughout the story the reader is instantly flooded with the coded sensation; relief, fear, or anticipation.

In thinking about about Strange and Norrell, it seems to me that where the book really soars is in its horror elements. I never thought I was one to go for horror elements, but this book impressed me.

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