Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Looking for a magician buddy comedy full of hilarious fantasy shenanigans? Well this is not it! In fact, forget magician buddy comedies (is that even a genre yet? It should be--that is, until you forget all about it because I just told you to)! How about a sort of deadpan comedy with two brilliant, yet incredibly self-absorbed magicians who partner up but not-so-secretly couldn't give much in the way of a damn about each other as they conduct shenanigans aplenty all over England? See, this is better! 

Mr. Norrell, squirrelly little magician whose hair I imagine to be gigantic because it's SO FULL OF SECRETS (like seriously this guy is all about secrets), decides to bring magic back to England. None of that adorable theoretical magic where a bunch of fussy old English nerds sit around talking about how great magic was. No, Norrell's the real deal, and wants to be the only deal. It's Norrell or nothing.

Enter Jonathan Strange, bored rich guy and professional dilettante, who discovers he's actually really good at magic. And also considered by the general population to be unattractive due to his unfortunate red hair, but that's not the main plot or important information, except to me. Norrell overcomes his distaste for sharing (and presumably for red hair) and takes him up as a pupil.

Together, the two proceed to perform miracles and win wars and drink tea and muddle everything in a spectacularly English kind of way, as you will, but everything turns out as it should in the end.

Reading this book is like being intermittently tickled by a stuffy, straight-faced English butler at an important ceremony. Every time you look at the source of your barely suppressed woes, he looks impassively back at you, stiff upper lip fully locked and loaded. He'd never even imagine doing something so undignified as digging his fingers into your filthy sides. Outrageous!

Then the second you look away, he's at it again with the fingers and the tickling. You release an arrested snort-giggle, earning you angry glares from everyone around you because no one appreciates a good snort-giggle nowadays (it's sexy! It IS). Meanwhile the butler politely turns his head away, pretending he doesn't know you. He's busy imagining he's at home, polishing the silver service to a pristine shine whilst scaring sense into the scullery maid.

This is what Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell feels like. The prose is magnificently deadpan and hilariously pompous about the wonders its characters create, making you laugh while considering the many ridiculous notions they entertain with complete seriousness. I'm no proper judge, not being from there, but it's all very English.

It's a mammoth of a book to read -- my copy clocks just over a thousand pages, but not a single page doesn't contain some sort of delighted guffaw in printed form. No small contribution to this endless torrent of politely phrased humor comes from Susanna Clarke's excellent characters. The book is simply bursting with them, to the point that you're like "hey guys this room is getting kind of crowded please get off my liver and hop back into the book." 

Every single one of them is marvellously flawed in some charming way -- Norrell is a selfish, greedy coward who can't think for himself. Jonathan is breathtakingly self-absorbed and occasionally is a giant tool shed to his wife. My one complaint would be that hardly any of the women in this book are given much in the way of spice. Aside from being enchanted and forced to dance all night in fey ballrooms, they're not given all that much to do.

The magic is splendid. Clarke is remarkably inventive in coming up with magical feats for her characters to perform. No run-of-the-mill rabbit hat tricks for this magical scribe, get out of town you sad loser. We have Gothic churches full of speaking statues, maps moving around like restless insomniacs to win historical wars, and dark columns of eternal night following you around like a creepy shadowed duckling that imprinted on you, all accomplished neatly before teatime.

I don't know if it's even being optioned, but although this book might translate very well to film, it might lose its key charm in the process. This is as book that needs to be read, cradled in your arms like a chubby baby that's really heavy and made of the crushed and tattooed remnants of a dead tree.  


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