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Ceridwen

Ceridwen

You kids get off my lawn. 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke Choupette's review captures the essence and beauty of this book, and you should totally read it.

This book devastated me, which seems out of place given its winking tone and meandering story-telling style. Its always seemed to me that there are two kinds of magic: sleight of hand and magic. Because this book was avowedly about the the latter, I forgot about the former, forgot that storytellers are tricksters and liars, conjuring people out of the air and dancing them about so that your attention is there while they pick your pocket here. I was lulled by what seemed like narrative looseness, a sprawling 700 page piece of gossip more about politics and the domestic than it was about wizards and muttering in Latin or all the sparkly tomfoolery and overblown seriousness that seems to characterize stories about magic. I've spent so much of my literary life attuned to the short con that I forgot the that the long con was even possible.

Despite it's setting in a very carefully mundane 18th Century England, this book is essentially a story about fairie. I've had exactly one brush with fairie. Before you flip out and start shouting about rationalism and all that, just listen to the story. I was on a family trip with my mother and sister in Ireland, and we tootled over to Newgrange, the way tourists do, to check out the neolithic passage tomb. Newgrange has another name, a Celtic one I've forgotten, but that's not really its name either. Newgrange is one of those rock-places built by people so thoroughly vanished that their names have been forgotten: there are no words left in our languages, no bones for the scrying, nothing. Older than Stonehedge, older then the Great Pyramids, older than Romans and Christians and literacy. Newgrange is a heap of stone, one unknowablely. large stone set upon the other in a sort of backwards stair, one you could climb on the inside only if gravity were to reverse. At the top of the doorway is a stone window, and in front of the doorway is a boulder with carved swirls and chevrons.

We climbed over the rock, and down the passage, and listened to the cheerful tour guide talk about Romans and Celts and all the people who have washed over Ireland in the 5000 years since Newgrange was built, and how the door was lost and then found, and how the real surprise happened when someone happened to be inside the earth mound on the Winter's Solstice, and realized that the opening above the door only let in the light on that day. Not only had these incredibly ancient people built this insane thing – using rock from at least 50 miles away – but they had done it to be astronomically precise. Then the tour guide turns off the lights, and it was like lightning, or what the opposite of lightning is, a flash of dark, but even the word “flash” is wrong, because it implies light. I was suddenly in the soul of dark, inside this not-earth, inside the past and all there was was the sound of other humans breathing in the dark, and behind that sound was another sound, and that sound was the dark itself. I thought to myself, “Oh, fuck,” but this isn't quite right either, this is what people think when crazy but understandable things happen to them, not this sort of liminal non-event of piercing through the veil of reality and time, a breathing moment of a bunch of strangers in the dark, a dark built by people who must have been people, but people whose motivations are obscure, occult.

Okay, this is overblown, I know. But it was also a real and not-real experience, taking place inside what is arguably the first and only fairy hill that has tour guides. Fairies have always kind of freaked me out, and when Norrell, early on in the story, conjures one almost thoughtlessly, toward really very silly and selfish ends, I had the beginnings of dread. My folks were more of the academic sort, so I didn't have much in the way of Disney growing up. Fairy tales referred to Grimm and Perrault and Andersen, and a trip into those woods is more likely to end in blood and enchantment than it is to have plucky Yanks subdue a native population and get the girl or whatnot. (Thanks Disney. You rule.) They are stories of warning, not wish fulfillment. I've always understood the word “occult” to mean “hidden”, and that's more or less what fairies are: all of this happy and unhappy id run to green and growing, or dead and dying; a being and becoming of unknown purpose. I've gone over the edge of overblown again, which is endlessly ironic, because the author of this book is more a master of her material than I, and my review so far is characterized by a bunch of personal histrionics that simply don't occur in the novel itself.

Shit. I don't know. Does anything in that last story have to do with fairie? Does it have anything to do with this novel? I haven't been able to pull together my thoughts coherently. I keep trying to explain to my husband why this book devastated me, and even after he told me he didn't care about spoilers, my explanations have been a disaster. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is about two magicians, two magicians and their lives and loves, and their not-loves, and all of the people that intersect in history, and how history is weird and unknowable and full of footnotes. I realize I have a thing for narrative voice, because I've been yammering on about it in my recent reviews, but I was unsure about the use of footnotes and this sort of odd-faux academic style in which this book is written. I kept waiting to pounce on the use of an “I”, but the author never obliged me. I expected a narrative ta-da! but instead of a clever-clever moment where everything went snick, it rolled out into the kind of transcendent sadness that I feel like characterizes life as it is lived. There's this exchange from the very last page:

He nodded and he seemed about to depart, but then he hesitated. “Bell,” he said, “do not wear black. Do not be a widow. Be happy. That is how I wish to think of you.”
“I promise. And how shall I think of you?”
He considered for a moment and then laughed. “Think of me with my nose in a book!”
They kissed once. Then he turned on his heel and disappeared in the Darkness.

This absolutely slays me, and I know I've just typed out a bunch of indecipherable junk for all of you haven't read this book yet. I'm the kind of asshole who always reads the last page of a novel, because I might get hit by a bus or something and I want to know how it ends. (Parenthetically, I think this may be why I don't read a lot of mysteries.) So I read this long before I ever understood what it means, and I mark it as a good thing that it's meaningless without the passage of time and the flesh of the characters to make it as shattering as it is to me now. Time's arrow moves in one way, as the physicists would have it, except when we humans move it backwards to try to capture life-as-it-was-then, and even then they-humans were trying to capture life-as-it-was-even-longer-ago, and the whole thing dissolves into a crazy historiography of not-now and not-us. Dammit, I'm not making a lot of sense, but I'm trying to resign myself to that.

There aren't many stories that deal with marriage well, it seems to me. There's all kinds of stories about the comings-together, and I mean this term with all of its cheap double ententes. Lovers meet, meet impediments to their true minds, and then overcome in a mingling of soul and flesh. Cut to end credits and happily ever after. Then there's a category of story about nightmarish marriages, husband and wife in a pas de deux that draws blood and splatters intimacies all over bystanders. I can tell you that in no uncertain terms I am afraid of Virginia Wolf. But rarely does an author tell a story of the casual intimacy of two people that live their (unavoidably) separate but intertwined lives, and how you can take someone for granted in all senses of the phrase until something happens to remind you that that might be kind of fucked up, how you might turn on your heel and walk into Darkness, but that that Darkness might have form and solidity borne out of both kinds of magic. Then you turn out the lights and all you feel is your body breathing in the darkness that you remember, but you've told that story so many times you can't remember if you remember the telling of it or the darkness itself. Ah.