Cambridge Days

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

About a month ago, I finished Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, though I didn’t really put the book to rest for three weeks after. It’s a massive tome; I wasn’t about to re-read it from the start, but the book demanded immediate re-visits, first a page here, then a passage there. And so it stayed atop my nightstand, getting better and better.

It’s a hard book to describe: the 19th-century atmosphere feels as cold as a lake in winter, and a gothic kind of melancholy hangs on every page. The tangled plot grows like a vine, not a flower; the story doesn’t blossom before the reader, so much as entwine itself around your ankles. And then, of course, there’s the magic (this is a book about magic) which feels veritably historic, resolutely English, and dangerously fey.

This book is not your run-of-the-mill fantasy.

There’s joy in it, but that’s mostly found in Clarke’s language, not the story itself. Her publisher has been aggressively hawking this book as ‘Harry Potter for Adults’, but where J.K. Rowling channels the sparky spirit of Roald Dahl, Clarke delivers a wit that feels more Dickensian. And while the book deals with the dire, fantastical and otherworldly, the needling humor is sourced closer to home – like the following, where Stephen Black is unwillingly whisked to a chilling setting by a malevolent fairy king:

The light was watery, dim and imcomparably sad. Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog. Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant.

“This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?” he said.

“My kingdoms?” exclaimed the gentleman in surprise. “Oh, no! This is Scotland!”

And so forth. Anyhow, the book gets a big thumbs-up, from me and Az both. (And we’re not just saying that because the author lives around the corner in Cambridge, too.)

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