Saturday, September 25, 2004


A couple days ago, I finished reading Susanna Clarke's widely lauded new fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Neil Gaiman's blurb calls it "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years." He does throw in "English," which clears him of asserting that it's better than Little, Big; but if it indeed is the finest English fantasy novel of the past seventy years, then the fabled British fantasy tradition isn't what it's cracked up to be.

Oh, the book is enjoyable, to be sure; but what's missing from it, which is present in both Little, Big and the best of the nineteenth-century novels Clarke imitates (and in Lord of the Rings, for that matter, though I'm not a Tolkien fan), is any sense that what happens in the book matters. For all Clarke's skill, ultimately the book feels like a literary exercise. In his New York Times review (registration required) Gregory Maguire declares that the book's chief character is neither Strange nor Norrell, but the books contained in it. This is an exaggeration, but Clarke does seem to have put the largest share of her imaginative energy not into her characters, or their world, but into the tradition of scholarship on magic that she has invented. And, unlike Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare or Tom LaFarge's The Crimson Bears, Clarke doesn't manage to make something unique out of her work's bookishness itself.

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