reviews

Resurrected book review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clark

Back in 2013, I listened to this book for the first time in many years, with many feelings.

1.

God, I love the language; I miss reading books like this. The first time and now, I’m really impressed by how it was written by a contemporary author so effectively in 19th century prose.  And it’s so inspirational to me, like when I got home last night and was thinking about my to-do list in language like, Then I must devise some form of dinner

And I love the pacing of it — though it’s really hard to get away with books of this length nowadays, but I love it anyway.  Especially how long it takes to meet the two titular characters — there hasn’t yet been any sighting of Jonathan Strange. Except in the footnotes! I also love the footnotes.  But yeah, it’s great because at the start, the only key characters are Honeyfoot and Segundus, the first of whom once wonders out loud if they are the two prophesied men who will bring magic back to England, but of course the readers knows they are not. :D

And augh, I love how magic is described, and the spell cast on the Yorkshire cathedral was so cool, and I looooove this book. The Britishness of it also brings me special joy.

2.

Ugh, I’d forgotten just how odious Mr. Norrell is.  We’re just about to meet Jonathan Strange, and I damn well hope he balances out Mr. Norrell’s total lack of human/sympathetic qualities, because right now there’s hardly any likable characters.  My favorite is Stephen Black.

3.

Just started Volume III: John Uskglass.

Man, I had totally forgotten the end of the last chapter (44) of Volume II: Jonathan Strange.  I actually gasped aloud, “Oh, God” at the final line, which no other audiobook has made me do (not counting how Lolita had me wailing and pounding my steering wheel in anguish).

Spoilers for those who haven’t read it, intend to, and don’t want to ruin one of the best parts of the book…

I’ll reproduce the paragraph (this, in summary, takes place after Strange’s wife, Arabella, disappears on Christmas morning and is seen – by widespread inhabitants of the country – wandering the moors in unfamiliar garments. Jonathan Strange performs spells trying to locate her, but his magic just tells him she’s not anywhere in England or the continent of Europe, which is quite a feat of travel in 1815. A huge, organized search commences, with no success, and they gather back at Strange’s house at nightfall to review all they did and what can still be done, when she suddenly shows up again. Still in that unfamiliar black gown, and with a puddle of water under her feet. They ask her where she’s been, but she just talk in mysterious language about walking among her “soft-sleeping brothers and sisters.” They put her to bed.

Then:

On the second day Arabella complained of a pain which went from the top of her head all down her right side to her feet (or at least that was what they supposed she meant when she said, “from my crown to the tips of my roots”). This was sufficiently alarming for Strange to send for Mr Newton, the physician at Church Stretton. Mr Newton rode over to Clun in the afternoon, but apart from the pain he could find nothing wrong and he went away cheerfully, telling Strange that he would return in a day or two. On the third day she died.

Holy shit, that carried a punch to it — the horror bound in the simplicity and quiet of it.

God damn, this is a good book. The most chilling scene so far — which I’d actually vaguely recalled, immediately remembered as soon as the set-up began — was on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, when Strange is set up in his tent with his silver basin.  Just for the hell of it, he tries out a foretelling spell, to look into the future and the outcome of tomorrow’s battle.

As he casts the spell, he’s very aware of all the sounds of camp life around him…and then  it starts to go quiet. He looks out, and he sees entire companies of men just vanish. All across the field, as far as he can see, hundreds of men gone.  And then he feels sick, and knows that some magic is not meant for ordinary men.

But on another note, apart from the brilliance of the writing and forms of magic — I’m also really impressed by how Clarke does not glamorize her two titular characters, our supposed heroes.  THEY ARE NOT HEROES.  Strange is a thousand times better than the disgusting knowledge-miser Norrell, but they are both entirely fucking USELESS magicians, oh my God.

Strange has no idea that a fairy is preying on his wife, even after the worrying disappearance, the information from the spell, and the peculiarities of her reappearance.  Even after his narrow escape with the King, he did not catch on to a fairy’s presence in England.  Not even after the peculiar way his wife talked about “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair” (which I increasingly cannot imagine as anyone other than David Bowie as Jareth, in Labyrinth), even after Strange investigated and asked Pole’s footman about the gentleman’s residence in the house.  USELESS.

But at least uselessness is better than criminal neglect, as in Norrell’s case. Oh my God. Resurrecting a young woman (now Lady Pole) just to win favor with her powerful fiance, not giving a FUCK that he sold half her life to a creepy-ass fairy, or that the fairy decided that “half her life” means “all the nights starting now” and now she’s continually depressed and miserable in a state of enchantment, so even the first half of her years has zero quality of life.  No, he’s all NOT MY FUCKING PROBLEM, ALL I CARE IS THAT HER HUSBAND LIKES ME SO I CAN INFLUENCE ~THE RESTORATION OF THE NOBILITY OF ENGLISH MAGIC~, NEVER MIND MY DEALINGS WITH FAIRIES TO PERFORM NECROMANCY.

So on that note, I am really excited about where I left off this morning, which had Lady Pole pointing a pistol at Norrell’s chest in the middle of the street and deftly decking all the strong-armed footmen trying to disarm her.  PLEASE, GIVE ME SOME JUSTICE. Too bad I know how unlikely it is for Norrell to die or stay dead….

4.

It’s a good book; epic as hell, with some fantastically original and unconventional stuff (like it’s a little surprising that Mr. Lascelles didn’t come to a worse fate, but it’s really quite fitting; and I don’t know if Stephen Black really wants to move permanently into Lost Hope…). One of my favorite aspects was all the lore about John Uskglass (the King in the North, the nameless slave, the Raven King) and the sole glimpse we got of him with Childemass. I like how it ended on a romantic note, for all that Jonathan and Arabella’s story wasn’t super-romantic.

The rest of my thoughts are going to be in the form of a wish list, in order of importance, for the BBC series adaptation coming out next year:

  1. Stephen Black had better be devastatingly, devastatingly hot
  2. Mr Norrell had better be every bit as unsympathetic and odious as he is in the books
  3. They had better not skimp at all over the race issues with Stephen, how he suffered and how sick he was of England in the end
  4. Lady Pole being an ice-cold badass
  5. I would not object at all if the fairy gentleman’s interest in Stephen was implied to be romantic or sexual
  6. I’m really interested in seeing how they portray Lady Pole and her marriage with Sir Walter
  7. Also, Arabella.  All the Arabella.  And her marriage with Jonathan.
  8. NAPOLEONIC WAR MAGIC
  9. Class issues, and just how overwhelming they were in daily life
  10. Period accuracy, etc.
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