Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'
'Have you read 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?' I asked at a dinner party last night.
My friend she had started it ... and given up.
'But it's marvellous,' I said. 'Read on!'
The book is magnificent. In truth though, I added, I too had stopped at page 100 first time around. Up to that point I had enjoyed one terrific scene, in which the sculptures of York Monster found movement and voice. The rest had seemed a tad ponderous. Language wandered off into occasional Victorian-style digressions, which I was finding tiresome.
At about p103 though, the book kicked in. Some books do that. Patrick White is an all-time favourite novelist of mine, but I was often wearying of his books a third of the way through. Then I turned a page, and wham, all that early work took effect and I was engrossed.
Maybe Susanna Clarke was still learning her craft a bit in these early pages, gaining fresh mastery as she progressed. I sometimes think that once you have finished writing a novel you should return to the beginning and write that section again, so it contains all you have learned since you were last there. Re: any accusation of verbosity, Susanna Clarke has her Mr Norrell say: 'I am not one of those miserly authors who measure out their words to the last quarter ounce. I have very liberal ideas of authorship.' (p.609)
And here's a powerful line: imagine the book that can have this sitting neatly within it: 'Doors slammed in his mind and he went wandering off into rooms and hallways inside himself that he had not visited in years.' (p.596)
This is a hugely daring and imaginative book. The dialogue is terrific, some of the descriptive feats astoundingly good, such as when a man becomes the land of England for a while. It calls on real intelligence as well ... a woman takes a boat out from Venice on a grey day, slips a vial into the sea so that its bronze liquid disappears. From that, and a smell of cat, you are left to realize she has had a meeting with Jonathan Strange, and what their agreement was. If you don't realize it, that's fine, the story winds itself on ... but you have been given just enough to set you working in the right direction. The book is very engaging of the reader.
And it is wondrously metaphysical - and terrific that such a book spins out of England, which might be seen to fight shy of such things. Our magicians are left seeing themselves through the perspective of a raven's eye the size of a mountain. We also have that aboriginal notion of our being a dream, in the suggestion that our heroic magicians are in fact elements in someone else's spell.
Get to page 103 and off you'll soar. I heartily recommend the book.