Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke was just such a pleasure to read. It's not often that a book is enjoyable in so many ways. From the thick creamy paper of the cover, with its gorgeous font, to the quaint charcoal illustrations, the book itself is a sensory experience. And that's nothing compared to how fun it is to actually read this novel.

Susanna Clarke creates a world in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell that is utterly believable. The novel takes place in a version of 19th century England which is much like the one we know, except that this England has a history of magic dating back to a golden age in the middle ages. The tradition of 'English magic' has fallen into decline and it is the aim of magicians Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange to restore its proper place in English life.

Primarily, Clarke is concerned with the characters in her novel. She doesn't get carried away with the whizz-bang fireworks aspects of fantasy and magic (well, maybe she does a little towards the end, but by then the reader is so convinced by the characters and wrapped up in the plot that they would follow her almost anywhere). The novel centres around the two magicians of the title. Norrell is a bookish, scholarly type who is secretive and suspicious about the motives of others. His aim is to hoard away knowledge about magic so that it won't fall into the 'wrong' hands. Unfortunately he is also ambitious, and in trying to win himself a position of authority with the government he uses a dangerous form of magic to bring a woman back to life, leading to all manner of strife.

Jonathan Strange on the other hand is gregarious and likeable, but with a tendency to take risks and to be attracted to the darker side of magic. He seeks out Norrell as a tutor and, although he finds Norrell infuriating at times, the two compliment each other and form a strong bond. It is only when they are separated by Strange's posting at Wellington's side during his war with the French (magic proving very helpful in battle) that cracks begin to show in their relationship.

This is the kind of fantasy novel that Charles Dickens might have written had it ever occurred to him to write fantasy. While this is unapologetically a fantasy novel, the genre that it has most in common with is the 19th century novel. Clarke draws on the 19th century both for setting and style. The humour and naming of characters struck me as very Dickensian, and there is a touch of Austen to the depiction of social relationships and manners. Surprisingly this pairing of genres really works to create something which, to my mind at least, is quite new and refreshing, although I'll admit to not being a big reader of fantasy so maybe this has been done many times before!

At almost 800 pages Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a long novel, but it is to Clarke's credit that it never feels long. I was totally swept up in the world that she creates and can't imagine how this novel could be shorter. In fact, I wished it could have gone on longer! I can't recommend this novel highly enough and will definitely be reading more of Clarke's work in the future.

10 comments:

Stephanie said...

Great review! I've had this book for ages and just haven't had time for a chunkster recently.

Stephen said...

I agree completely. It sounds like You'd enjoy "The Ladies of Grace Adieu", her follow up book of short stories (and one of them features Mr Strange). Highly recommended, although what I'd really like is another full length novel from her.

jess said...

Stephanie, I thought this book would be a big commitment too but it was so good that I read it really quickly. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it when you get around to it.

Stephen, The Ladies of Grace Adieu sounds great although I agree, another full novel would be fantastic.

Sarah said...

Like Stephanie, I bought this but have found the length daunting. I must read it soon, maybe when I go on holidays and have time to savour it.

Then again, I might cheat and read The Ladies of Grace Adieu first.

Dorothy W. said...

We have a copy of this one on our shelves; I'll have to pull it down sometime. Perhaps this summer -- it would be a good summer book, I think. I do like long absorbing novels!

bookchronicle said...

I'm glad to find someone else who was enthralled by this book! You should definitely check out "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," it's a wonderful collection.

Melanie said...

I felt the same way about this book. I loved the characters but also simply the 19th century structure of the story. It was enthralling.

Fay Sheco said...

The time is right for reading something altogether entertaining, and this sounds just right. It has been sitting on my shelf for ages.

redheadramble said...

Excellent review, I have been eyeing this book for a while but was intimidated by the size, it may need to go on the to be read list..

jess said...

Sarah, Dorothy, Fay & Redheadramble: I hope you get the chance to read this soon. It is so much fun!

Bookchronicle & Melanie: Glad you agree!