Top Five Reasons Why I Love Susanna Clarke's First Novel

At 1000 pages, lesser men might baulk at Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - the so-called Harry Potter For Grown-Ups. I started it in November, finished it at 0100 this morning and I miss it already.

"Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Lord Wellington asked Strange.

Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. "I suppose a magician might," he admitted, "but a gentleman never could."

5. Hyper-Dickens
If you're going to write a 19th Century English novel these days, you'd better be prepared to sweat over each page. It's my (limited) understanding that Dickens and Austen wrote in the language of their time so it doesn't surprise me that it took Susanna Clarke ten years - outside of her day job - to achieve the same effect. Harley Street is Harley-street, choose is chuse, show is shew consistently throughout. Characters use exclamation points at the drop if a hat! The result is the difference between going to Venice and staying at The Venetian in Las Vegas: the copy is more concentrated.

4. Footnotes
Norrell makes a wild claim about the magicians of the past and the bottom of the page tells you that, actually, he's mistaken about that. Strange mentions a spell in passing and your eyes go down to see when it was published, how many copies still exist and the life and times of the author. Alternatively you get whole passages that have no place in the main narrative - free short stories, in essence. Footnotes give what you're reading an air of authenticity, authority and importance.

3. Structure
Does it surprise you to hear that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has a third section named after someone else entirely? The great thing about imposing a rigid structure early on is ignoring it and throwing the reader for a loop every hundred pages or so.

2. The Gentleman With The Thistle-down Hair
A wicked, wicked man from Faerie. I'd guessed the mystery involving him by page 600 and I like books that make me feel clever. Was it obvious to you too? It was certainly RIGHT.

1. Humour

"My chief problem," explained Lord Castlereagh, "is finding men for the Army - a quite impossible task, I assure you. But I have my eye on Lincolnshire; I am told that the pigs in Lincolnshire are particularly fine and by eating them the population becomes stout and strong. Now what would suit me best would be a general spell cast over Lincolnshire so that three or four thousand young men would all at once be filled with a lively desire to become soldiers and fight the French. Would your friend know of such a spell, Sir Walter, do you think?"

On the book's website Neil Gaiman says he thinks it's better than Tolkien. (Check out The Duke Of Wellington Misplaces His Horse too.) Are you reading it yet? Why not? And what should I read next?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds really great. Now if can just finish off the 30 or so books on my "unread" shelves, I'll get right on this one!

"The result is the difference between going to Venice and staying at The Venetian" Not as good as the real thing? :-)

Blogger thisismarcus said...

Not as REAL as the real thing, but unique for its own reasons. (I read Umberto Eco's Travels In Hyper-reality at an impressionable age.)

Blogger DrHeimlich said...

This very book has been on my list to read for a while. It's next, in fact... but I've stopped reading for a stretch to try to catch up on a bunch of DVDs.

Anyway, your recommendation has certainly convinced me it might be worth rethinking my priorities.

Some writer (Stephen King, I think) said the whole "Harry Potter for adults" analysis of this book was a crock... "HARRY POTTER is Harry Potter for adults," he argued. And a good point there, I think.

Blogger Candace said...

Another book to put on my list! I have a long queue of books to read, though most are re-reads that I'm hungry to experience all over again.

If you haven't read Dune yet, I vote for the first 3 Dune books. If you have, how about the Thomas Covenant books? Ender's Game? The Red Dwarf books if you're in the mood for light-hearted comedy that makes your stomach hurt from laughing so hard.

wkwxirjy: a spell to turn the will of others to my own.

Blogger The Paranoid Mod said...

Ah, the old "better than Tolkien" line. As used on the Thomas Covenant novels, as well I seem to remember...

I haven't heard of this, having spent what seems like the last 10 years ploughing through Neal Stephenson's System of the World trilogy. Finally finished it - recommended if you have plenty of time and a magnifying glass for the print, which is quite small. Otherwise Raymond Chandler has been rocking my world recently.

Blogger thisismarcus said...

Mod: I liked Neal Stephenson but just couldn't get along with the lack of action and gave up on Cryptonomicon though I haven't ruled it out for the future. BTW Gaiman didn't say "better than Tolkien" but he did say the finest English fantasy novel of the last 70 years and I did the math.

Candace: Dune I liked but it's very rare that I go for hardcore fantasy or sci-fi books. I LOATHE Red Dwarf with a passion.

Dr. H: I swear you'll love it but I thought that about Dr. Who too! Use the Duke Of Wellington short story as a litmus test?

Blogger Candace said...

You LOATHE Red Dwarf?!?!? Say it isn't so! Those guys make me lmao. And the books are hilarious. Bummer. Dh isn't a Sci-Fi fan at all and loved Ender's Game. Same with my sis. You might like it. How about The Cardinal in the Kremlin? Some P.G. Wodehouse, perhaps? (you can certainly see his influence on Adams)

obviously my spell failed miserably. ;o)

Blogger thisismarcus said...

Wodehouse is gode stuff. Clancy's too formulaic for my taste. Might catch the movie of Ender's Game but I can't justify reading it yet when I still haven't read any James Joyce!

Blogger Candace said...

Oy vey! James Joyce didn't do it for me. :oP

Don't settle for just the Ender film. The book rocks! And Card has already said the film will have to be a beast of a different nature since the book doesn't translate easily to film.

Atlas Shrugged is a nice nearly 1,000 pager. But it seems to be a love it or hate it book. It made a huge impression on me.

All the other books that keep coming to mind are pretty much for women. :-/ Oh - I saw some intriguing-looking ones on Amazon. Check out H2G2 on there and look at the ones that pop up in the "if you liked this book" list.

Anonymous Shig said...

STRANGE is a lovely book, tremendously imaginative but so assured for a debut novel (the footnotes etc, as you say). As I've said here before, I'm a Victorian literature junky, and cod sci-fi Vic lit works for me!

What next? If you want more Victorian stuff, try some bonkers sensation like Collins's THE WOMAN IN WHITE or THE MOONSTONE. If you want a huge modern take on Dickensian London, I really enjoyed Michael Faber's THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE, a brick of a book but compelling, and with that same surefootedness that STRANGE has. Or if it's sci-fi on the menu, how about Iain Banks's latest, THE ALGEBRAIST? Banks's non sci-fi books all seem like teenwank these days, but his sci-fi's still good and THE ALGEBRAIST displays the kind of imagination that, like STRANGE, leaves you staggered.

And I can't imagine anyone finding any of the FLASHMAN books other than splendidly entertaining, hilarious, and historically informative. Happy birthday!


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