by J.D. Roth
I am reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the third time in less than a year. If that is not a high recommendation, I don’t know what is.
I’ve mentioned before (as have several commenters) that there are some brilliant passages in this book. Though Clarke is unable to sustain this peak of quality throughout the entire volume, like an addict I keep going, craving the next hit.
Here is today’s hit:
Strange took the cup and drank the water down. The cup fell from his hand. Drawlight was aware — he did not know how exactly — that Strange was changed. Against the starry sky the black shape of his figure sagged and his head dropped. Drawlight wondered if he were drunk. But how could a few drops of any thing make a man drunk? Besides he did not smell of strong liquor; he smelt like a man who had not washed himself or his linen for some weeks; and there was another smell too — one that had not been there a minute ago — a smell like old age and half a hundred cats.
Drawlight had the strangest feeling. It was something he had felt before when magic was about to happen. Invisible doors seemed to be opening all around him; winds blew on him from far away, bringing scents of woods, moors, and bogs. Images flew unbidden into his mind. The houses around him were no longer empty. He could see inside them as if the walls had been removed. Each dark room contained — not a person exactly — a Being, an Ancient Spirit. One contained a Fire; another a Stone; yet another a Shower of Rain; yet another a Flock of Birds; yet another a Hillside; yet another a Small Creature with Dark and Fiery Thoughts; and on and on.
“What are they?” he whispered, in amazement. He realized that all the hairs on his head were standing on end as if he had been electrified. Then a new, different sensation took him: it was a sensation not unlike falling, and yet he remained standing. It was as if his mind had fallen down.
He thought he stood upon an English hillside. Rain was falling; it twisted in the air like grey ghosts. Rain fell upon him and he grew thin as rain. Rain washed away thought, washed away memory, all the good and the bad. He no longer knew his name. Everything was washed away like mud from a stone. Rain filled him up with thoughts and memories of his own. Silver lines of water covered the hillside, like intricate lace, like the veins of an arm. Forgetting that he was, or ever had been, a man, he became the lines of water. He fell into the earth with the rain.
He thought he lay beneath the earth, beneath England. Long ages passed; cold and rain seeped through him; stones shifted within him. In the Silence and the Dark he grew vast. He became the earth; he became England. A star looked down on him and spoke to him. A stone asked him a question and he answered it in its own language. A river curled at his side; hills budded beneath his fingers. He opened his mouth and breathed out spring…
He thought he was pressed into a thicket in a dark wood in winter. The trees went on for ever, dark pillars separated thin, white slices of winter light. He looked down. Young saplings pierced him through and through; they grew up through his body, through his feet and hands. His eye-lids would no longer close because twigs had grown up through them. Insects scuttled in and out of his ears; spiders built nests and webs in his mouth. He realized he had been entwined in the wood for years and years. He knew the wood and the wood knew him. There was no saying any longer what was wood and what was man.
All was silent. Snow fell. He screamed…
Like rising up from beneath dark waters, Drawlight came to himself. Who it was that released him — whether Strange, or the wood, or England itself — he did not know, but he felt its contempt as it cast him back into his own mind. The Ancient Spirits withdrew from him. His thoughts and sensations shrank back to those of a Man. He was dizzy and reeling from the memory of what he had endured. He examined his hands and rubbed the places on his body where the trees had pierced him. They seemed whole enough; oh, but they hurt! He whimpered and looked around for Strange.
The magician was a little way off, crouching by a wall, muttering magic to himself. He struck the wall once; the stones bulged, changed shape, became a raven; the raven opened its wings and, with a loud caw, flew up towards the night sky. He struck the wall again: another raven emerged from the wall and flew away. Then another and another, and on and on, thick and fast they came until all the stars above were blotted out by black wings.
Strange raised his hand to strike again…
“Lord Magician,” gasped Drawlight. “You have not told me what the third message is.”
Strange looked round. Without warning he seized Drawlight’s coat and pulled him close. Drawlight could feel Strange’s stinking breath on his face and for the first time he could see his face. Starlight shone on fierce, wild eyes, from which all humanity and reason had fled.
“Tell Norrell I am coming!” hissed Strange.
In the past few hours, I’ve listened to this passage three times. I’ve read it on paper three times. I’ve copied it from the book to the text editor. It retains its dark hold on me each time I read it, enchants me. I wish that I could write like this.
When I have finished with Jonathan Strange, I will move onto a book that Kris recently read and loved: The Time Traveler’s Wife. And then I will re-read another book that captivated me last spring: Cloud Atlas. This is a golden age of fantastic fiction. There’s some wonderful stuff being produced by strong writers, stuff that’s accessible even to those disinclined toward fantasy and science fiction, stuff that’s quality literature by any measure. For children, there are the Harry Potter books and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. For adults, there are the three books I’ve cited and several others. It is a great time to be a fan of speculative fiction.
Updated: 17 February 2006