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Bewildering Stories

Susannah Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susannah Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2004
Hardcover: $27.95 U.S.
Length: 782 pages
ISBN: 1-58234-416-7

How frustrating the publishing business must be for those anxious money-counters risking their corporate fiscal health on the Next Big Thing. Like horse races, there’s no sure winner. Consequently, they mitigate their risk. Tried-and-true cash machines, those literary engines that squat on the best-seller lists with that umpteenth sequel, are the perennial favorites.

Should they be forced to bet on a dark horse, though, those gnomish accountants who moonlit as publishers have to really hedge their bet. Of course, there’s a tried-and-true method for this situation, too. Does the new book have anything to do with magic? Start squealing “The next HARRY POTTER!!!” in every marketing blurb. Is there a religious or Biblical connection? “The next DA VINCI CODE!!!” I don’t suppose anyone in the publishing industry will divulge to me the actual rituals performed to invoke the blessing of these past two divinities. I’m convinced, all the same, that there must be something — some esoteric, high-tech ritual based upon, say, Freud’s principle of transference — or maybe a simple rain-dance, performed in front of the icon of St. Rowling.

Since Susannah Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell deals with magic, of course we are told that her work “has the cleverness and lightness of touch of the Harry Potter series” (I quote Amazon’s official entry). Well, ahem, no, it doesn’t. If our Gnomic Accountants cum Publishers hoped to clean out the pockets of the same audience that paid for J. K. Rowling’s masterworks, I don’t think they’ll succeed. Do you know any teenagers who lust after massive 19th-century tomes? Indeed, Clarke’s novel reads like a mule beget out of Trollope by Le Fanu (and I wish there had been more Le Fanu in the mix).

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is, in fact, an anachronistic oddity. It has all the disadvantages of the Victorian novel: excessive length (seven hundred and eighty-two pages — bless me, I read them); intrusive authorial asides; lengthy footnotes that run across multiple pages; and to top off the stack, a meandering, digressive narrative that never cranks up to full bore throttle. Do you think I exaggerate? Mr. Jonathan Strange of the title does not even make an appearance in this novel until page two hundred and eight.

No, no teenager is going to make it through this book. Perhaps someone realized that: if Harry Potter is not taken in vain in those proliferating marketing blurbs, poor Jane Austen is. Ms. Austin’s heroines are, of course, such wonderful fountains of modern-day cinematic profits, whether in the beauteous blonde versions pimped by Hollywood or those uglier-but-smarter brunettes served up by BBC. You can just feel those gnomic accountant-publishers breaking a sweat in their desperation to connect Ms. Clarke’s odd little book to your wallet!

Well, fortunately for this survivor of those seven hundred plus pages, I have read a number of 19th century novels, and even enjoyed a few. There are advantages to the style, of course, as well as those aforementioned disadvantages. Characters build slowly but thoroughly before our eyes; we have, so to speak, the literary equivalent of a long, drawn-out, formal courtship here, rather than the quickie one-night-stand of modern relationships. And in this, Ms. Clarke is successful. This heart of this book is indeed the relationship between the two title characters: fussy, petty, dry-and-dull-as-dust, vindictive, jealous Mr. Norrell and his sole professional colleague, the much more ad hoc, shoot-from-the-hip, lively Mr. Strange.

More than holding his own with our duo is the villain, the unnamed Faerie gentleman whose weathervane emotional instability and childish pettiness may be tinged with comedy, but who is no less frightening for that. The Faerie gentleman with the thistledown hair is not a being to offend. Magic as wielded by Mr. Norrell is a book-derived, dully academic exercise; by Mr. Strange, charmingly ad hoc and inventive; but as wielded by our spiteful, prankish, sexually pre-pubescent Faerie gentleman — glory and terror in equal parts.

Plot is not one of Ms. Clarke’s strong points. We have, to summarize those seven hundred plus pages, the jousting rivalry and professional camaraderie of our two magicians; the Faerie gentleman’s spiteful interventions, which Mr. Norrell and Mr. Strange slowly (and I do mean slowly) awaken to; finally we have a deus ex machina who sets things right, in the classic fashion, by first appearing on page seven hundred and fifty-four and then briskly taking care of business (even if the god has to loan out a few powers). By that time, I was already in throes of a fine old frustration with Mr. Strange for his unaccountably thick head. Perhaps Ms. Clarke will forgive me for summarizing Mr. Strange’s slow progress toward enlightenment in my own little skit:

Mrs. Strange. I visited dear Lady Pole today, Jonathan, and met that strange gentleman again. How peculiar that he lives there with dear Lady Pole and Sir Walter! Do you know, he has the oddest thistledown hair, and the most charming manners, and, by the way, he wears a bright green suit. He kissed my hand most affectingly... poor dear Lady Pole, I am sure she must be under a spell, so listless and sad is she...

Mr. Strange. Yes, dear. I hope my article appears in tomorrow’s paper. The nerve of that Norrell! You would think his was the only way to practice magic!

(This conversation continues, with minor variations, for quite a number of years. Mrs. Strange dies suddenly under mysterious and questionable circumstances. Mr. Strange, grief-stricken, at last evinces an interest in a new piece of petticoat. But his nouvel amour is cut short. Someone tells him his wife is NOT REALLY DEAD, but merely enchanted and spirited away).

Mr. Strange. Egads! Fire! Sorcery! Exhume the body! (Um, will it have decayed by this time? How many years does it take?) Help! Villains!

Fortunately, the god from the machine is on his way, having ridden to the rescue from his more important properties in Heaven, Hell, and Faerie. Slow-top Mr. Strange and his properly Victorian wife manage to hold out, though his spouse (who has been dancing away under the spell of the Faerie gentleman, along with poor Lady Pole and her excruciatingly careful and correct butler) has seriously sore feet. We don’t, I’m afraid, ever care much about the ladies in this book, because they get short shrift: one-dimensional placeholders, each and every one of them.

Ms. Clarke does do a wonderful job of depicting the relationship between the two English magicians. Her villain, too, is wonderfully depicted. I wish she had shed more light on the minor characters and paid more attention to plot... plod is more what she ended up with. Still, for those of you who like those 19th-century tomes and enjoy that slow build-up to... well, I guess it’s a climax... enjoy!

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

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