Turns out my earlier misgivings about Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell were completely and gloriously unfounded. Between yesterday afternoon and now I’ve finished a further 400-odd pages and wow, has this book taken off or what! Where my response to it after the first few chapters was lukewarm, I can now happily describe it as enchanting, entrancing, spellbinding, mesmerising, bewitching, talismanic (and whatever other words one might use to describe a great book about magic, provided one does it with a nudge and a wink).
But seriously, I can’t think of the last time I experienced such discordance between the way a book began and what it eventually turned into. Some of the dreariness of the first 70-80 pages might, I suppose be put down to a first-time author struggling with the introduction of her characters and the establishment of her setting. Or maybe Clarke was just being too clever for her own good, by deliberately fashioning her narrative in a way that would reflect the personalities of her two magicians (Mr Norrell, who we are introduced to first, is dull beyond imagining, and the far more dynamic Jonathan Strange doesn’t properly appear until around 200 pages into the story).
I wonder if other readers will react the same way I initially did, and consequently give up on it. That would be a great pity, because it’s really worth sticking with. (To be honest, one of the reasons I didn’t stop reading myself was that I had paid good money for it; another was professional interest. But what of casual readers who might have borrowed it from someone?)
I don’t want to say much more about the book here, because I’m hoping now to review it for some publication or other. But here’s one of many passages I loved:
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On learning that Emperor Alexander of Russia was a curiously impressionable person much given to mystical religion, Strange decided to send him a dream of eerie portents and symbols. For seven nights in succession Alexander dreamt a dream in which he sat down to a comfortable supper with Napoleon Buonaparte at which they were served some excellent venison soup. But no sooner had Buonaparte tasted the soup than he jumped up and cried, “J’ai une faim qui ne saurait se satisfaire de potage!” ( “I have a hunger which soup can never satisfy!”), whereupon he turned into a she-wolf which ate first Alexander’s cat, then his dog, then his horse, then his pretty Turkish mistress. And as the she-wolf set to work to eat up more of Alexander’s friends and relations, her womb opened and disgorged them in horrible misshapen forms. And as she ate she grew; and when she was as big as the Kremlin, she turned, heavy teats swaying and maw all bloody, intent on devouring all of Moscow.
“There can be nothing dishonourable in sending him a dream which tells him he is wrong to trust Buonaparte, and Buonaparte will betray him in the end,” explained Strange to Arabella. “I might, after all, send him a letter to say as much.”
Word soon came that the Russian Emperor had been exceedingly troubled by the dreams and that, like King Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible, he had sent for astrologers and soothsayers to interpret it for him – which they soon did. Soon Alexander neglected the business of government and war, and sat all day musing upon his dreams; and whenever a letter came for him from the Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte, he was seen to turn pale and shudder.