Sheep, goats, God and man: Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut

When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Like I’m in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilised I mean. Like you’re still on the earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore. And that’s hectic. You’d think I never got in a car before. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.

 

Our culture is shackling men to a toxic misogyny that is not doing either men or women any favours, and stopping our society moving forward.

This was the subject of Winton’s electrifying speech delivered at the 2017 Perth Writer’s Week and of his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut.

Obviously, Winton’s hour-long speech explains his point much better than my attempt at a one-line encapsulation, so don’t argue before you listen to it (this recorded in Melbourne, but same speech).

And The Shepherd’s Hut tells the story of Jaxie Clackton, raised with domestic violence and emotional poverty, in a small town that turns a blind eye to his mother’s bruises. She won’t leave his abusive alcoholic father. Her escape is to die of cancer, leaving her teenage son to endure the thrashings alone.

It’s told in the first person, giving fucked-up, foul-mouthed Jaxie room to let loose: “the prose equivalent of a good long slug of room-temperature rum,” Good Weekend described it.

When his father dies in a sudden accident in the opening pages, Jaxie is terrified he’ll be blamed and flees north deep into the Wheatbelt. Starving and dehydrated, he comes upon a vast salt lake. And on its border, an old shepherd’s hut.

There lives Fintan, a defrocked Irish priest hiding a secret. He’s been there eight years. Twice a year someone drives in supplies and asks him to atone for his sins. He never does and the sins are never revealed, though there are hints at some kind of political scandal. He takes Jaxie in, gives him food and water, and nurses him into health and a prickly, cautious friendship.

He give me a pannikin of tea and he sat back down and drunk his slow and methodical. I looked back at that bead thing on the shelf. It was way out of place in a hut like this, in an old dude’s stuff, and he could see me sussing it out and I thought for sure he’d get on his hind legs and say fifty-nine things about it but the look on his face said that wasn’t gunna happen, like it was off limits.
Good chops, I said.

The book is highly readable. By 50 pages in, compulsion sets in and I rip through it at warp speed. Writing Jaxie, Winton lets you look straight through the eyes of a rough kid staring down the barrel of a hopeless future. He’s gone full immersion, Stanislavsky style. The voice of our country’s most famous writer is entirely subsumed by this angry little dero, all burred up like a scorpion about to strike, as his own girlfriend describes him. Winton’s not building complex characters and scenery like in his other books; it’s all narrative drive.

The writing glows like a hot coal. He builds the story like he’s building a fire, first placing your empathy, then your hope, then slowly your foreboding, priming you for the explosion you know is coming.

But it ain’t genre fiction, no matter how thrilling, and so, as with much good literary novels you’re required to do a little head scratching at the end.

My boss Fran and I were both puzzled, and we came up with zilch, so I did a little research and I present below some hints on how to think about it all. Don’t worry; no spoilers.

Think about the old priest as a Christian shepherd. He’s living in a shepherd’s hut, but there are no sheep left. Being too old to hunt roos for meat like Jaxie, he lures and traps goats into a backyard water trap to slit their throats. He does no shepherding, until he takes Jaxie in and saves his life, giving him food, drink and succour in the Christian tradition of welcoming a stranger.

The mysterious old sinner is both a bad shepherd and a good shepherd.

And the symbol of the sacrificial goat will appear again.

In the Australian Book Review, Brenda Niall says this notion of a priest atoning for sins in the desert recalls an 1850s painting by Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat.

“Hunt bought a white goat. He took the goat to the margin of the salt-encrusted Dead Sea, where he set up his easel. A piece of red cloth, representing the sins of the world, was tied to the goat’s horns,” she wrote.

“Hunt was dramatising the Old Testament text in which ‘the Goat shall bear upon him all [the people’s] iniquities unto a land not inhabited’. This, in Christian belief, is in accord with the idea of the suffering Christ as the bearer of the world’s sins and sorrows.”

Whether or not Winton was purposefully invoking this particular painting, you are left with clear symbols: a shepherd, the sacrificial goat, Jaxie as an ‘instrument of God’.

Is Jaxie receiving a sacrifice as the son of God, made in his image as Christianity tells us all people are, and therefore deserving of a brighter future?

And, more obviously: how can Jaxie avoid becoming his father, and make his own brighter future?

How can our society do better than ignoring suffering, allowing a poisonous and violent version of manhood to continue, letting evil flourish?

Winton told the New York Times his ability to describe the world he sees makes him rich despite his modest upbringing; that this book is a nod to those boys without that luxury.

“Such a narrow lexicon, range of words, strong feelings with no way of expressing them except with their fists,” he said. “That’s poverty.”

 

And I drive like that, just under the limit, with a chop in one hand and the wheel in the other. Laughing hard enough to choke. For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you.

But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. and for fucksake don’t get in my way.

 

 

In other Winton news, two of his other Booker-shortlisted books have now been picked up for films after the success of Breath (highly recommended). Dirt Music will likely be filmed in WA. And…! My favourite Winton novel The Riders will be produced by Ridley Scott! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Australian fiction: Afternoons with Harvey Beam, by Carrie Cox

As a young man, Harvey Beam got the hell out of his hometown, confirming his suspicions that you can successfully run away from your problems. But after forging a big-city career in talkback radio, Harvey is now experiencing a ‘positional hiatus’. The words aren’t coming out right, Harvey’s mojo is fading and a celebrity host is eyeing his timeslot.

Back in Shorton, Harvey’s father Lionel appears at long last to be dying. It seems it’s finally time for Harvey Beam to head home and face a different kind of music.

In wading through a past that seems disturbingly unchanged, the last thing he expects is a chance encounter with a wonderful stranger…

Perth journalist Carrie Cox is the author of Coal, Crisis, Challenge and You Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Bus. This is her debut novel but it reads as though she has been writing fiction for years.

The premise sounds rich with the promise of drama and the narrative didn’t disappoint, unfolding in a way that kept me guessing right up until a neat tail-twist I never saw coming.

Cox has a gift for evoking places and people with deft, apt descriptions that are never laboured or overdone.

Her characters are filled-out, humanly flawed and likeable.

She gracefully manages the balancing act of focusing on and building the internal life of Harvey Beam, while spinning you through the story.

She invites you to understand the joy and madness, the peculiar intimacy and alchemy of the talkback radio world.

She has unerring insight into people and families, but still respects the mysteries at their centres.

Her creation of an eye-rolling teenager in Harvey’s daughter Cate is spot-on. It’s no caricature, however, but a sympathetic and sweet portrait of a girl who becomes an unexpected sidekick for Harvey in his family drama.

The topics are deep but Cox’s touch is light; all the while she is unfailingly, confidently funny.

She has nailed it and I can’t wait for the next book.

*Afternoons with Harvey Beam is at bookshops now. I got mine from Boffins.

How Tim Winton got my mojo back, and other stories.

They all hurled sticks for galumphine mutts, their sun-fucked faces shining with adoration.

Tim Winton, Eyrie

The 2017 state election campaign was one of the most gruelling periods of my working life.

It wasn’t all because of the self-imposed workload; equally to blame was the nature of the work.

Without really intending to, I had become what felt like the sole statewide reporter questioning the Roe 8 project, simply because for every story I wrote, more swarmed from the woodwork with questions demanding answers. The more I looked in vain for those answers, the dodgier the whole project looked.

I wrote countless reports on the protests, the machine lock-ons, the clashes with police. I wrote The Idiot’s Guide to Roe 8, and covered the Senate inquiry into the unnecessary slaughter of animals caused by the haste with which the works were being rushed through pre-election. After the release of more than 350 pages of documents when Alannah MacTiernan’s Freedom of Information application was finally approved after the government spent years fighting it, I hunkered down with the documents and finally produced one of the most demanding stories of my working life, Figures fudged in Roe 8 rush job.

Roe 8 was by no means the only environmental issue I covered in the months preceding the election. I covered the Beach not Bitumen campaign against the Esplanade extension through Bush Forever land in Scarborough and Trigg and the No Houses in Wetlands campaign against the bulldozing of Carter’s Lot in Bayswater – including another trawl through Freedom of Information documents showing the approvals for the development had been based on incomplete paperwork.

I covered the establishment of marine parks scientists were calling “paper parks” because of the lack of inclusion of any sanctuary zones for marine life. I covered the race to the bottom that was the evolution of WA’s hunt-to-kill ‘serious threat’ shark policy. I covered the new Biodiversity ‘Conservation’ Act passing into law, complete with a clause allowing an environment minister to approve the extinction of any species should ‘progress’ require it.

Hot on the heels of this charming piece of legislation came the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine, ignoring the Environmental Protection Authority’s knockback on grounds the mine would cause the extinction of subterranean fauna species. Things that look like prawns, and aren’t cute, but whose role in purifying our underground aquifers could be significant – things that should be studied further, not destroyed by humans drunk on their own power.

As the election drew near I was going to write an opinion piece drawing all this together, but by then I was just too damn exhausted. (Note, it’s now May that I’m writing this). The only thing that kept me going was the emails that poured in from readers after every story, saying thank you, and pointing me to the next. Still, it was disheartening. I was starting to think it was just too hard to keep caring. Those emails from LinkedIn offering cushy jobs in PR, toeing the company line, were starting to look very attractive.

Especially since more emails were coming in from people asking me to investigate more stories, more stories I would never, even if there were twelve of me, have enough time to get to.

In fact, I just looked at my Evernote and found this. A blurt, jotted then forgotten on February 21.

I am utterly competent, hard, brisk but compassionate and capable. 
I am petrified 
The emails keep coming. 
Fifty-plus a day. 
I worry when i am there, 
more when i am not  
The people continue to reply
I try to leap out of the loop
But i cant stop checking
Clicking
Pecking
At these emails that just keep coming. 

Enter Tim Winton

It was in this frame of mind I picked up Eyrie. I was innocent of its subject matter, having seen it in a bookshop and remembered that I had been planning to read it since its 2014 release. I thought, now is the moment – I was headed to Rotto for the weekend for a wedding and planned serious down time.

Eyrie starts with a jangling hangover and a weird wet patch on the carpet for Tom Keely, divorced by his wife and disgraced in the public eye after an event in his previous professional life as an environmental campaign spokesman left him unemployed. The mining companies would love to have him come to the dark side in their PR departments, but he’s not yet having a bar of it.

Instead, he staggers from blind drunk to blinding daylight, trying to work out how to pay the bills now his old career has locked him out for good. He is “doubly bound, trapped like a bug in a jar – addled, livid, dizzy, butting his head and turning circles”, high up in his ‘eyrie’ – atop a bleak block of flats in Fremantle inhabited by people down on their luck.

The block, in real life, is one nicknamed the ‘suicide flats’, generally regarded as a colossal town planning mistake in Freo.

Into this block of flats, and the mess that is Keely’s life, returns a distant childhood friend, bringing a hefty set of her own problems and a vague but highly uncomfortable sense of responsibility for Keely.

Whenever I mention Tim Winton, one of my most beloved authors, inevitably someone tells me they still have a Cloudstreet hangover after being made to study it in school. I never understood this, but I never had to read it for school. I just read it because that’s the kind of nerd kid I was.

Whether or not they have a point, I say to them – get over it! You are missing out. This book is raw, angry and humbling in its brilliance.

It casts a merciless glare on to the murky underbelly of environmental politics and activism in WA, and their uneasy coexistence with the all-powerful mining industry.

It brings Fremantle and Perth into sharp relief, cities painfully under-represented in our national literature. Ours is a culture dangerously lacking in self-reflection and as Winton shines his pitiless light on Keely, he shines it on us all.

Here’s a glimpse of Freo’s cappuccino strip through the eyes of Keely:

It’s hard to look at but harder to look away, like squeezing a zit under a fluorescent bulb.

The writing makes you realise how long Winton has been honing his craft. It’s as though every year and every book that has passed has made him more devastatingly effective

He doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s stripped down to diamond hardness.

Back to work

The emails have piled up over my long weekend. But this time, a different email lies buried among them.

Would I like to interview Tim Winton pre-election on gas fracking?

You’ve got to be kidding me. I am spent. There is a week to go until I can drop this gargantuan election effort. I am behind. I still have more stories to write than I can poke a stick at. I have researched every bloody environmental issue under the sun in the lead up to this election. Except bloody gas fracking. I have only the vaguest idea of what it even is. I thought, bless me, there was one thing I was going to let slide.

Of course, I make time. I do some hasty cramming. He’s my hero.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because they will disappoint you. But this is not always true. Winton talks like he writes. He is funny and self-deprecating and wise and full of memorable idioms. He tells me it’s normal to get discouraged when you campaign on environmental issues. He riffs on power and politics and defeat in WA with the authority of someone who knows all the dirtiest secrets. I’m entranced.

He talks for 40 minutes. I try not to interrupt in case he remembers his time is valuable.

I summon energy, pull together research and write another pre-election environmental story. The result got more than 10,000 readers – testament to Winton’s star power.

There has now been a change in government. Polling said Roe 8 was a factor in the decisions of about 20 per cent of voters – a significant influencer.

The new government has helped buy back Carter’s Wetland, stopped the Esplanade extension through the dunes, and has said that while the Yeelirrie mine approval still stands, it will not approve further uranium mines. Its true stance on gas fracking remains to be seen.

My trust in governments, like everyone else’s, runs sadly low. But the election coverage was, nonetheless, worth the effort.

Eyrie? Even more so.

 

Madman releases Jasper Jones trailer

Madman Entertainment has finally released the trailer for Jasper Jones, adapted from Fremantle author Craig Silvey’s best-seller and featuring an all-star Australian cast including Hugo Weaving and Toni Collette.

Silvey is also known for his debut Rhubarb, but I and most people I speak to agree Jasper Jones is by far the favourite: a novel you never forget. It’s done the book club rounds because it’s that rarest of combinations, a literary novel and a thumping good read.

Now from Bran Nue Dae director Rachel Perkins, Animal Kingdom producer Vincent Sheehan and Goldstone producer David Jowsey comes this eagerly awaited adaptation.

It feels like it’s been a long time coming, with my anticipation heightened by Barking Gecko’s stage version a couple of years ago at the State Theatre Centre of WA, and more recently by hearing about the advance premiere screening of this adaptation at CinefestOZ in Margaret River some months ago.

The movie, set for theatrical release in March, follows Charlie Bucktin, a bookish 14-year-old misfit living in a small Australian town in 1969.

In the dead of night during the scorching summer, Charlie is startled awake by local outcast Jasper Jones outside his window, pleading for help.

Jasper leads him deep into the forest to show him something that will change his life forever, setting them both on a dangerous journey to solve a mystery that will consume the entire community.

In an isolated town full of secrecy, gossip and thinly veiled tragedy, Charlie faces family breakdown, finds his first love and discovers the meaning of courage.

But don’t think this is going to be boring and worthy. This was a seriously funny and vibrant book – that’s why its following is so loyal.

As well as Collette and Weaving, stars include Levi Miller from Pan and Angourie Rice from the excellent These Final Hours. Just looking at the stills makes me think they’ve cast this movie perfectly. I’m excited!

Down the rabbit hole with: Jane Austen

One of my favourite things about the world of books and movies is the way they lead you around by the nose, back and forth between them.

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An author, genre or entire series can form a rabbit hole, some I emerge from in a matter of weeks, others forming a whole warren that can take years to traverse, interconnecting with other related authors, genres and series. I fell into a warren of Stephen King books and adaptations about five years ago I’m yet to clamber out of, blinking. It doesn’t help that he is master of the cross-reference, meaning new works constantly lead you to back catalogue. Nice sales tactic, King!  

My most recent rabbit hole, literary biographies, saw me off crashing down side route after side route, and I have emerged from one as convert to the cult of known as Janeites.

Three literary biographies survived 2016’s Minimalist Challenge and 2015s Curing of a Bibliomaniac. My experience over the past year writing my own first novel has led me to poke with increasingly greedy interest into the lives of the authors I most admire.

So I devoured A. N. Wilson on the life of C. S. Lewis, Peter Ackroyd on Charles Dickens and my beloved Carol Shields on Jane Austen with gluttonous pleasure, wondering how did they write even one book, which bitter experience now informs me is a gruesome, impossible task?

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Deserves its own post. A standout biography.

All these were outstanding and made me determined to fill in the blanks of my reading and to re-read favourites. Starting with the blanks, I’m two-thirds through Oliver Twist and have now read Lewis’ sci-fi novel trilogy. Yes, he wrote space books! (They are a bit heavy. Strictly for extreme Lewis or sci-fi nerds).

Knowing the depth of the rabbit hole Lewis’ non-fiction list represents, and ditto for re-reading the entire Dickens canon, I tackled Austen first, since she was the only  one I’d never read at all. 

Another profoundly affecting book.

Another profoundly affecting book.

The story of her life – and untimely death – moved me and captured my imagination. Lewis and Dickens, while they certainly struggled, at least were born men. All the world wanted from Jane Austen was for her to get married and procreate, but with the encouragement of a lovely Dad she forged her own path, sometimes a lonely and difficult one, and in doing so gave the world gifts it still treasures.

And all to be struck down in her prime. This author who had suddenly hit national fame with just a few works of brilliant insight was struck with sudden illness and wasted quickly to a death at about 40 years old, without so much as a diagnosis. They now think it was perhaps breast cancer, the Shields biography explained.  

It’s hard for a modern soul to comprehend how such a woman, famous, beloved and blessed with a rare genius just flowering, not to mention committed to succeeding despite some serious odds, could simply be permitted to expire without any fanfare or medicine or even a knowledge of why she was dying. And yet this is what happened to Jane Austen, who was denied life and whose further works were hence denied to humanity. 

Struck by these ideas and by the social constraints that inspired Austen as much as they confined her, I picked up a giant omnibus and worked my way delightedly through Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice. I found their intelligence and wit, their painstaking evocation of a world complete in and of itself, as utterly worthy of inclusion on any required reading list of English literature – and a damn sight more enjoyable than many other books on said list.

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A very large book.

I stopped here, however, having failed to get through the omnibus in six weeks, but now dying to see it all recreated on screen. I had a stab at Mansfield Park, on Netflix, which utterly failed to hold my interest, then turned to the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

This is in itself required viewing, as Bridget Jones’ dedication to Mr Darcy in a wet white shirt shows, and hits the jackpot. Glorious escapism and a near faultless adaptation, with excellent scripting, casting and story transmission. It even preserved the essential humour. The Ministry, who I was by episode three confident enough to drag into it, turned to me and said, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” “Yes!” I replied, joyfully.

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My cheat sheet to get the Ministery up to speed on the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Next we debated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I don’t want to go there. It might ruin my pleasure in the BBC series. It got 5.8 on IMDB, encouraging for a zombie movie, but all things considered it’s low priority. After all, there is The Walking Dead to provide zombies as required when the interminable mid-season break ends. 

Next I’ll probably read Emma, then re-watch the film for 90s nostalgia purposes. I’ve discovered the Ministry hasn’t seen it; terribly remiss, since his only reason is an irrational fear of Gwyneth Paltrow. He hasn’t seen Sliding Doors, either, so we’ve clearly got some remedial work to do these holidays.

Then maybe I’ll hunt out a good screen adaptation of Oliver Twist.

See what I mean?  The rabbit hole is a delightful place to be. It’s amazing I ever come up for air.



 

 

Amnesia: the ‘new’ Peter Carey book

Peter Carey’s easily one of my top five authors and on my fantasy dinner party list, so of course I leapt straight on to his new book. Well, I meant to.

Now that I’ve finally got round to it I realise that Amnesia was published in 2012, so shame on me. But it’s certainly not lost any of its potency during its patient wait for me on the shelves of the recently opened City of Perth Library (beautiful and well worth a visit).

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Disgraced political journalist Felix Moore, unemployed after a highly public defamation conviction, is commissioned by a shady but powerful ally to write a biography of – and thereby potentially gain public sympathy for – young Australian hacker Gaby Bailleux, whose parents he knew in their younger days.

She faces extradition to America for infiltrating prison systems there and at home and Moore is promised access to her in her hideout – but the access never eventuates. Moore, held by shadowy figures of the resistance movement in remote locations for his own ‘protection’, is forced into a dreamlike attempt to grasp his elusive subject, and pin her inner life to paper, through the infuriatingly scant and subjective secondary materials she sees fit to provide.

He writes her life story, each page whisked away for an editing process completely beyond his control. He is unable to separate her from the backdrop of the society into which she was born – one whose politics is forever troubled by its murky relationship with America, from Vietnam War-era machinations between the CIA and Australian government until the present.

It sounds complex, and it is. This plot is not for the faint-hearted, and I confess to a rather foggy understanding at times. It requires a focus beyond the level neede for your average page-turner or blog post; perhaps that’s why it’s taken me four years to read it.

But that’s not to say it’s boring. Its ambitious plot reflects a leap for Carey into a heady new direction for his style, in which he crafts a modern thriller that still bears the Carey hallmarks. His dialogue is immediate and unhampered by quotation marks, a feature of much of his writing, which adds to the sense of surreal displacement experienced by his narrator. It’s a part of his style that has been described as fabulism, in which a sense of the fantastic is blended with a realistically reported narrative. In fact, the whole book embodies this concept, in a sense – the story of the objective political reporter who suddenly finds himself flung down the rabbit hole.

Above all, the novel retains the sublime power of description I love Carey for, a power so great it really goes beyond description, in which words do not seem to go through your brain for translation into pictures and feelings, but instead seem to cut straight into your soul.

Amnesia, to be truthful, did not grab me by the heart and the imagination in quite the same unforgettable way his Oscar and Lucinda, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, did.

But it did reaffirm my belief that Carey is one of the world’s greatest living novelists. In it I could see the expertise that has built over the decades and appears to still be growing. A privilege to read.

 

Why you should read the world’s longest novel

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke, 2004)

Mr Norrell … stood on the lawn and stared up at stars he had never seen before. He did not feel as though he were inside a Pillar of Darkness in the middle of Yorkshire; he felt more as if the rest of the world had fallen away and he and Strange were left alone upon a solitary island or promontory. The idea distressed him a great deal less than one might have supposed. He had never much cared for the world and he bore its loss philosophically.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Simply the… biggest. Cool cover, huh?

Since How to Cure a Bibliomaniac ended I’m not blogging every book I read, but after the sheer length of time I spent reading this I felt it only right that I should receive a medal, I mean give it an entry.

I should probably acknowledge though that it is not quite the world’s longest novel. My now finely honed collection (one set of shelves! Woo! And, er, one crateful standing in front of it) still contains one longer, Isobelle Carmody’s doorstop The Stone Key which lords it over Clarke’s 800-odd page tone with a whopping 1000 pages. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is also nearly 800, though a shade shorter than Clarke’s.

I know I’m harping on about how long this is, but frankly, there was a (now) amusing period in which I was convinced that no matter how many 15-minute blocs I dedicated, it grew gleefully a few pages longer each night while I slept and kept me stuck interminably at 200 pages in. I kept dropping it with a thud on my knees and saying tragically to the Ministry of an evening, “THIS BOOK IS SO BLOODY LONG.” Not helpful was the limited time I had to give, maybe 15-30 minutes each night, so it sure did take a while to read.

OK, enough on the form, here is content.

It is 1806. The heyday of English magic is widely regarded as over. Several hundred years has passed since the time England’s magician King and his numerous magician subjects who mingled matter-of-factly with regular folk. The door between Faerie and England once lay wide open and English roads tangled with fairy roads leading to weird and sometimes terrifying places. Now magic has become an area of historical and theoretical study rather than a practical profession and any man who calls himself magician is in fact a theologian.

Imagine the surprise and delight of this theological society and of society at large when they uncover in the Yorkshire countryside one man who is truly a real live magician, with a spectacular library of rare and long-forgotten magical books, who proves his talents in spectacular fashion then travels to London to lay his gifts at the feet of the government and generally be adored. This is Gilbert Norrell and quickly he is famous.

But Norrell is also mean-spirited and possessive. He wants to be the only magician in England and he certainly doesn’t want to share his priceless library. With the help of his servants he tricks and bullies anyone else who might like to give magic a go into giving it up before they have fairly started, outsmarting them into signing contracts saying that they will cease and desist, even convincing the government to outlaw the hocus-pocus-sellers on the street corners and run them out of town. He does all this despite the knowledge none of them pose any sort of real competition.

But the younger, more charming and far more adventurous Jonathan Strange slips through the net and disarms him. Against all odds he becomes Norrell’s pupil. Together they serve the government in matters at home and abroad – Strange travels with the army in the Napoleonic wars for several years, moving the countryside about to confuse the enemy, creating illusions to frighten the other soldiers. They prove themselves indispensable to the government and the people. Norrell even lets Strange read one or two of his books and they get on all right for a while.

But Strange is a strong and opinionated pupil, wanting to throw wide open the doors between the ancient magical world and the modern one and summon all kinds of magic and magical creatures – not just the ones sanctioned by Norrell. Master and pupil, once friends and colleagues, become bitter enemies.

But when Norrell is tempted into an act of magic, an impressive but foolish and ignorant feat in an attempt to stop death snatching away love, he unleashes an evil that will have consequences for him, for Strange – for the whole of England and beyond.

You think I have gone on too long like a modern movie trailer and told you the whole story, so there’s no point shelling out $20 to go to the cinema. But in fact I have just outlined the introductory premise. You’re only a few hundred pages in. Ha! No spoilers here.

This is a thoroughly English book and I mean that in a most complimentary way. It is almost Dickensian, full of detail and a definite comedy of manners. It is, as I have mentioned, also set in the 1800s, featuring cameos from Lord Byron, Napoleon and Wellington, with much chronicling of earlier centuries through extensive footnoting.

Despite knowing it is fiction, my hatred of pre-1900s history discovered in high school and strengthened in university extends into historical fiction. So I find it a hard slog to read what feels like a history, no matter how convincingly and deliberately this format is used, when I have been banking on straight fantasy. I have to force myself to read the footnotes despite an abominable temptation to skip them and in some cases my reading of them is shamefully close to skimming. But I read them all and so should you. You’ll need them.

To be brutally honest, and I concede this could be the hater in me talking, I think this novel need not go quite so far into the Napoleonic wars as involving Jonathan Strange. It feels somewhat like a sidebar, one that just goes for too long. You could probably cut out a good 200 pages and make them a spin-off novel, which makes me sound terribly Grinchy. In fairness, perhaps someone who likes historical fiction and has more than 15 minutes a night up their sleeve will probably lap it up. Perhaps the book is to be applauded for keeping someone like me involved enough to keep going in the first place.

But wait! What light through yonder window breaks? About halfway through, on a rainy weekend day I am able to settle in for a few hours, I begin to appreciate the fullness of the portraits of Norrell and Strange, and the depth of the tale, so tightly packed with asides and footnotes and backgrounders, now slowly unfurling, its darkness gathering.

And it bewitches me. The central trunk supporting its many branches, many leaves, is a story of love and risk, of an otherworldly danger that lies in wait for people to stumble into its trap – and pay the ultimate price. As widely as the net is cast across the real world and the magical one always just beneath, it is this central story, this central danger that finally gives it urgency, a sense of what is at stake.

Quite after I have stopped expecting it, compulsion floods in. At last I feel that glorious feeling, the one I live for, of being glued to a lovely fat novel.

This is a truly outstanding book, the more so because it is Clarke’s first – according to Wikipedia she took 10 years to write it and this surprises me not a whit. It nearly took me 10 to read it. (only kidding, I’ll stop).

Approaching the end I am savouring each page, gleefully anticipating each twist, acknowledging that every little note sounded, every scene drawn has had its place as this violent and utterly fantastic adventure hurtles to its conclusion.

“Closing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell after 800 pages, my only regret was that it wasn’t twice the length,” Neil Gaiman wrote in his review.

A bit masochistic of him, perhaps, but I think we all get the point now. Go read it.

Postscript: oooooh. Have just seen this has been made THIS year into a BBC miniseries with an IMDB rating of 8.4. I knew I was right to read this book 11 years after its publication…