Sunday, October 30, 2005

Perfect for Halloween

Considering that this is a book concerning magic and magicians shortly after the turn of the 19th century in England, I was not surprised to find it full of events of a miraculous nature. Any work dealing with wizardry and dusty old grimoires and the land of faerie must consist at least in part of such happenings as are a-typical in the materialistic realm of post-Enlightenment European civilization.

And yet the most significant miracle of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the novel itself. I have just read a book of extraordinary cleverness, a book Mr. Dickens or Miss Austen would have had great trouble matching for its wit, authorial confidence, or scale, a book marshalling dozens of wholly realized characters and historical figures ranging from King George to Wellington to Lord Byron in a historical novel whose alternate reality is only slightly askew from that presented in the standard history tomes, and askew in merely the most delicious of manners. This is no mere fantasy novel, but a lavish entertainment I took great pleasure in lingering over for a full week. Who is this Susanna Clarke? How wonderful she must be! Does she have a faerie assistant who assists her magically in the crafting of something so special? The jacket of her book purports this to be a first novel. I expect amazing things from her in future.

I'd read a review wherein the critic categorized Strange and Norrell as a bore the weight of a toddler with turgid interruptions by footnote scattered haphazardly and unprofessionally throughout. As a result I didn't read it, and denied myself a peculiarly satisfying pleasure until Faulty Landscape righted this wrong by describing it via electronic missive as the "best book [he'd] read in years." I'll not go quite so far, but this is certainly one of the finest novels I've read in recent memory. That forgotten reviewer who lead me so badly astray is, I hope, wandering cold stone halls at night in search of the source of hypnotic flute music, wistfully hoping her eternal quest will end; she deserves such a sad fate because she wouldn't know a pleasurable read or a finely crafted work were one to leap up and bite her.

Do yourself a favor and read this. Clarke has great skill and deserves a wide audience. By turns Strange and Norrell is hilarious, weird, sad, and creepy; Clarke builds each atmosphere with marked maturity. I was disappointed by Harry Potter to the degree I couldn't finish the first book--Clarke has written one for me. [No disrespect intended to Ms. Rowling, nor to her books, nor to her legions of fans. Taste is subjective and her first book was no where near to my preferences--and yet I'm sure she cares not as she likely employs 50 folk at a higher salary than mine who do naught but cash checks for her. And she deserves her fame and fortune and seems like a wonderful person. As do many of her fans. In fact, I'm sure Ms. Rowling would love Ms. Clarke's book]. I hope Ms. Clarke also makes a billion dollars--that is the basis of my comparison, and that alone. And no, you can't borrow mine. I shall need it to re-visit over the years.