Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke was just such a pleasure to read. It's not often that a book is enjoyable in so many ways. From the thick creamy paper of the cover, with its gorgeous font, to the quaint charcoal illustrations, the book itself is a sensory experience. And that's nothing compared to how fun it is to actually read this novel.

Susanna Clarke creates a world in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell that is utterly believable. The novel takes place in a version of 19th century England which is much like the one we know, except that this England has a history of magic dating back to a golden age in the middle ages. The tradition of 'English magic' has fallen into decline and it is the aim of magicians Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange to restore its proper place in English life.

Primarily, Clarke is concerned with the characters in her novel. She doesn't get carried away with the whizz-bang fireworks aspects of fantasy and magic (well, maybe she does a little towards the end, but by then the reader is so convinced by the characters and wrapped up in the plot that they would follow her almost anywhere). The novel centres around the two magicians of the title. Norrell is a bookish, scholarly type who is secretive and suspicious about the motives of others. His aim is to hoard away knowledge about magic so that it won't fall into the 'wrong' hands. Unfortunately he is also ambitious, and in trying to win himself a position of authority with the government he uses a dangerous form of magic to bring a woman back to life, leading to all manner of strife.

Jonathan Strange on the other hand is gregarious and likeable, but with a tendency to take risks and to be attracted to the darker side of magic. He seeks out Norrell as a tutor and, although he finds Norrell infuriating at times, the two compliment each other and form a strong bond. It is only when they are separated by Strange's posting at Wellington's side during his war with the French (magic proving very helpful in battle) that cracks begin to show in their relationship.

This is the kind of fantasy novel that Charles Dickens might have written had it ever occurred to him to write fantasy. While this is unapologetically a fantasy novel, the genre that it has most in common with is the 19th century novel. Clarke draws on the 19th century both for setting and style. The humour and naming of characters struck me as very Dickensian, and there is a touch of Austen to the depiction of social relationships and manners. Surprisingly this pairing of genres really works to create something which, to my mind at least, is quite new and refreshing, although I'll admit to not being a big reader of fantasy so maybe this has been done many times before!

At almost 800 pages Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a long novel, but it is to Clarke's credit that it never feels long. I was totally swept up in the world that she creates and can't imagine how this novel could be shorter. In fact, I wished it could have gone on longer! I can't recommend this novel highly enough and will definitely be reading more of Clarke's work in the future.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Starting Tristram Shandy

I have finally begun reading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (to give it its full, very 18th century title) by Laurence Sterne. It's slow reading so far, but still lots of fun. I find myself constantly looking up the footnotes at the back of the book. I so much prefer it when the footnotes are on the same page- it's still distracting but at least you don't have to be leafing back and forwards all the time. I suppose I could just skip the notes but my curiosity gets the better of me each time and I worry that I'm missing something crucial.

I seem to have digressed into discussing the footnotes when I wanted to write about how funny this book is. It's probably the influence of Tristram Shandy that has me losing my thread; the story is full of constant digressions with only the slightest nod to a narrative structure. The novel is, however, very funny and often very, very rude. I love that about 15 pages in the narrator finally finishes his dedication and then offers it up for sale:
If therefore there is any one Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount or Baron, in these his Majesty's dominions, who stands in need of a tight, genteel dedication, and whom the above will suit, (for bye the bye, unless it suits in some degree I will not part with it)- it is much at his service for fifty guineas;- which I am positive is twenty guineas less than it ought to be afforded for, by any man of genius.

Hopefully I can keep up the momentum with this book, it requires quite a lot of concentration, at least for my poor brain, but will be worth it in the end I know.

I've also just finished Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and am trying to put together a post that in some way captures the wonderful-ness of it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On Chesil Beach

Warning: Spoiler ahead.

She watched him, willing him to go slower, for she was guiltily afraid of him, and was desperate for more time to herself. Whatever conversation they were about to have, she dreaded it. As she understood it, there were no words to name what had happened, there existed no shared language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other.

This section occurs about two thirds of the way through Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach and it really gets to the heart of what the book is about. Edward and Florence are on their wedding night. It's 1962, before the sexual revolution, and things do not go well. Both are crippled by nerves and fears about sex and it is their lack of a shared language to speak about such things that creates a disastrous situation.

On Chesil Beach is a painful reading experience, not because it is badly written at all, but because of the awful awkwardness, fear and shame that both characters feel on their wedding night. On top of their inability to discuss their fears about sex, McEwan also includes a class conflict: Florence is from a batter educated and wealthier family than Edward. This class issue is emphasised during the intense emotion of their first (unsuccessful) attempt to have sex and to my mind, it is partly Edward's feelings of inferiority that mean he cannot understand what Florence is really feeling.

McEwan centres the entire novel around one short evening but this never feels limiting or claustrophobic. This is because he uses the wedding night as a springboard from which to explore the two main characters' backgrounds and childhoods. There is a dark hinting at some sort of sexual abuse in Florence's childhood that helped me to believe in what seemed at first an unreasonable fear of any sexual contact with Edward, who she clearly loves desperately. Edward it seems is determined to do what he feels he is supposed to do, what society expects of him, and thus cannot consider any suggestion of other ways that he and Florence might organise their married life.

It is no surprise then that things don't end well for the couple, although part of me was happy that they were able to go off and explore beyond the confines of what seemed a rather limiting relationship. McEwan describes the rest of Edward's life but I wanted to know more about Florence and whether she ever did have a satisfying sexual relationship, although I suspect she doesn't. Some readers have criticised the lack of historical accuracy in the novel and it does seem lax of McEwan to not get at least the simplest facts correct such as when albums were released and so on, but for me this was not a barrier to enjoying the story. In the end I felt as though he might have exaggerated circumstances somewhat. To my mind, the shame of a failed marriage and divorce would have been a pretty compelling reason for characters as conservative as Edward and Florence to stay together, but on the other hand I can see that they had reached a point of no return.

On Chesil Beach is a reminder of the terrible price of ignorance. I finished this book feeling so thankful that I have grown up in a world that values openness and education about sex so that hopefully none of my peers experience anything like what McEwan's characters go through. Thankfully we now do have that shared language that Florence and Edward so desperately needed.