November 20th, 2007

A Modern Classic

It's a very big book. As big as a Collected Shakespeare. It caught my eye as I walked between the stacks and  I thought, "Hm, I've heard of that".

What had I heard? Oh, good things, bad things- nothing very specific- but I knew there was a buzz about it.

So I went and carried out my mission- which was to harvest books about Elizabethan England for Ailz- and on my way back decided to look for it again.  I had to poke about a bit. It wasn't exactly where I remembered. Maybe it was playing hide and seek with me; it's the sort of book that would.

But I found it at last. When you're as big as this book is you're not going to stay hidden for long.

I don't exactly know why but as soon as it was in my possession I found I wanted to read it very, very badly.

It's not an easy read; it's too damn heavy; you could do with a lectern. But I like how it comes with its own ribbon book mark.

I knew straight off that I'd made a discovery. OK, it's a discovery others have made ahead of me  (Neil Gaiman says it's the best British fantasy novel for 70 years) but you don't necessarily believe what's written on the back cover, do you? 

And this was a very specific discovery. One of a kind I don't remember having made before. I wasn't just that I liked the book.  It was that I knew- with most of it still unread- that I was dealing with a classic.

I'm picky about the word classic. Most of the things that are called classics are nothing of the sort. Classics are built to last. A classic can be expected to live longer than the average human being- to live indefinitely. There are actually very few classics around.

So, it's engaging, inventive, imaginative, funny- but so are lots of other books that aren't classics. What's the special ingredient?

In a word- confidence. This is an author who knows exactly what she's doing. She writes (in an unfaltering  pastiche of early 19th century prose) with, poise, clarity, wit and- when the story goes off in that direction-  beauty. Her tale is labyrinthine but never confused. It has a huge cast- every member of which is unmistakably individual.  Her world, for all its fairy-tale weirdness, is as solid as Tolstoy's.

I find I haven't yet named any names and I think I'll leave it that way for the present.  Anyone care to hazard a guess?