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.