November 28, 2006

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Sasanna Clarke

A terrific novella can be found here, perched uncomfortably at the end of an 800-page chapter book for adults.

In Clarke's England of 1811-1814, magic is a memory but not an impossibly distant one: in the Middle Ages, Northern England had been conquered by a Faerie King and the modern United Kingdom now holds the North in stewardship for the absent Northern monarch. Faerie is thus historical memory, lost in much the same way as Welsh independence or the barony of Calais. Spells actually worked in the Middle Ages, and 19th century antiquarian societies avidly collect old manuscripts of magic instruction.

When Gaiman calls this, "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years," he pays himself a disservice because his American Gods is a much better (and far more concise) novel. Perhaps American Gods is too American and not quite English enough, and perhaps Lord of the Rings is not precisely a novel. (Seventy years is a strange number: what happened in 1936? The Once and Future King? Lud In The Mist?)

Hundreds of pages are spent on forgettable episodes of mildly amusing magic, vaguely reminiscent of Harry Potter but written in a slightly more ambitious tone. I enjoy long narratives, but Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell cost me weeks of reflection on the issue of abandoning a book in midstream. It seemed, literally, interminable.

And then, at the very end, we witness a transformation. The nature of magic itself changes: instead of vague and mysterious gestures, the magicians of the title seem suddenly to be studying a real subject and thinking about the properties of something complex and poorly understood but nonetheless important and tangible. They sound less like Harry and Hermione and more like Watt and Stirling -- and that must be precisely what Clarke set out to do in the first place. Instead of cardboard antagonisms, we have a real reconciliation of two enemies who find themselves together in a country house on a desolate moor under Perpetual Darkness. They neither trust nor understand each other, but they will work together because there is work to be done.