The first time I read this way back in 2008 I gave it five stars out of reflex, and then later I downgraded to four (I even deleted my Goodreads review because it just seemed excessive and ridiculous). My instinct upon finishing the second time was also to just smack five of ’em on there. It’s just so well-written, and so comprehensive, and so epic-feeling. It’s practically got it’s own gravity.
And then I stepped away from it for a while, again (in this case months, whoops), and I think to myself, But did it really get me in the feelers? And the answer is no. Not five stars worth, anyway. Maybe the next time I read it, ten years from now (or whenever, now I’ve got this audiobook, which is really very good). It is, however, one of those books that rewards thinking about seriously. I’ve done some reading of literary analyses written on this book since finishing it in May, and the neat connections people have made* retroactively make me like the book even more. So five stars? No? Yes? Fuck. It’s just one of those books for me I think that I will have two reactions about, that initial reflex, and then the later consideration where I rethink things a bit.
*This article was my favorite of the dozen or so I read. It ” investigates one of the central metaphors made legible by magic in JSMN: the ‘silencing’ of certain voices underrepresented in most historical narratives—those of women, people of color, and disenfranchised poor whites. Clarke represents these groups with several characters who are subject to a magically enforced, literal silencing.”
If you somehow haven’t heard of this book (it was everywhere for several years, won a bunch of awards and everything; even non-fantasy readers were getting into it), it is an alternate history where magic is real and in the world, but has fallen away over several hundred years. It also takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, over a span of years in the early 1800s. The two titular gentleman are magicians. Mr. Norrell is the first to bring magic back to England, but he is fearful, controlling, and egotistical (buying up all books of magic to keep for himself, so no one else can learn what he knows, for instance). When he is finally persuaded to take a pupil, that pupil is Jonathan Strange. The story covers the span of their relationship, professional and personal, but slowly the background characters (Strange’s wife, Norrell’s servant, a black butler named Stephen whose parents were slaves) begin to take over. And always there is the fairy, the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, up to no good in the background.
I find it utterly impossible to try and describe this novel. For starters, I’m not sure I’ve entirely grasped the scope of all the things Clarke was trying to accomplish here (aping the style and format of writers of the period, like Austen and Dickens), all the while trying to accomplish something on a larger scale in terms of British literature and folklore. And she does it with an absolute behemoth of a book, where each piece is carefully considered and placed, the pace is rather sedate, and the detail enormous. The result is something that feels real and fantastical at the same time.
If you’re an audio person, the narration by Simon Prebble is great. He really brings such a gravitas to the story, but at the same time, he’s got a bit of a sly humor to him.
Read Harder Challenge 2020: Read a doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman.