Sunday, 13 November 2011

'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke (2004)

Synopsis: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an alternate history of England. The year is 1806 and the country is still involved in the Napoleonic Wars. Centuries ago the north of England was ruled by an extremely powerful magician called the Raven King but he mysteriously vanished, all other practical magicians have faded away, and magic is believed to have died out. But then two theoretical scholars of magic discover the reclusive Mr Norrell, a man with genuine supernatural power. After causing the statues to speak in York Cathedral, Mr Norrell moves to London and becomes an overnight celebrity when he kickstarts a revival of magic in the country. He raises a young woman from the dead and uses his magic to terrify the French navy. However Mr Norrell is then challenged by the emergence of another magician, Jonathan Strange. Strange is the exact opposite of Norrell. Norrell is old, cautious, fussy and antisocial. Strange is handsome, dashing, arrogant, rebellious, much more naturally gifted than Norrell, and fascinated by the most dangerous forms of magic. Tension begins to develop between them. The story also contains a genuinely sinister and malevolent fairy, Norrell and Strange's involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, and the revelation of a prophecy that involves the Raven King.

I absolutely adore this book. I think it's amazing and one of the best books I've ever read, so as you can imagine I would dearly love to recommend this book to just about everyone. Unfortunately I can't really do that. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a marmite read if ever there was one and I've read equally passionate five star and one star reviews for it in the past. I think your liking of this book will depend on your expectations. If you're expecting and hoping for something that's rapidly fast-paced and full of exciting magical duels then this book probably won't be for you. However, anyone who loves this book will REALLY love it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a very long book, it takes place over a 10 year period, and it features a large cast of characters with several different subplots. It's a complex and challenging book - but in a good way! Not only is it literary and a meticulously researched and imaginative alternate history of England, it's also a brilliant fantasy novel. There's a fair bit of social commentary and witty comedy in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell too; this book is hilarious at times! When this book first came out it was labelled as being "Harry Potter for adults!" but that's just not true. I do love Harry Potter as well of course but that comparison is completely misleading! Instead imagine if Jane Austen or Charles Dickens had written a fantasy novel: what you'd get is probably Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The prose even echoes that with Susanna Clarke using an old-fashioned writing style that would have been contemporary at the time in which the book is set. If nothing else you will be forced to admire Clarke's ambition! Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is beautifully-written and a stunning achievement. I know that some readers out there have complained about the length of the book and that the footnotes are annoying distractions but I completely disagree! The length of the book allowed for the characters and the alternate universe to be better developed. Some of the footnotes are insanely long yes, but they add so much depth, richness and mythology to the story. They become fascinating in their own right and I loved Clarke's attention to detail. 

Another key thing that makes Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell so great is its characters. I loved the use of real historical figures - like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron - but it was Clarke's fictional characters that really stood out for me: the Gentleman, the mysteriously fascinating Raven King, Childermass, Arabella and the magicians themselves (despite all their faults). They're interesting, entertaining, vividly described, multi-dimensional and I actually felt that they belonged to the time period. 

So, yes, even though I think this book is magnificent I should warn you that it may not be to your taste. And if you're about halfway through this book and you're still not hooked then you might as well give up on it and find something that you will enjoy. However, if you love your big, epic literary classics and fantasy novels and are enjoying this book then by all means carry on because you'll probably love it just as much as I do! Apparently Clarke is working on a sequel too which I'm VERY excited about!

Rating: 5/5


Mizzie-Me said...

I tried to read this book once and couldn't get past the first chapter... However, I've dug out some reviews of this book over the years (now including yours) and I think the problem might have been that I was too young – I can't remember exactly what age I was when I tried to read this but definitely less than 15. I still have this one (in Finnish) in my parents' book shelf, and now I'm so intrigued by it that I'm going to give it another try when I have the time!

Hannah said...

Awesome! I really do hope that you'll love it as much as I do :) There's a BBC adaptation of it that's supposed to come out later this year too. I'm cautiously excited about it!

Manette said...

Now I read it AND I loved it – so much that I'm attempting to put up a proper place of discussion on my blog! :)

Manette said...

I've been meaning to tell you that I'm re-reading this! :) I found out that I really, really enjoy reading out loud and I had the idea that JS&MN would make the perfect material for it. I've been reading this out loud one chapter at a time for my mum for a couple of months now and we're both enjoying it immensely (Mum's getting acquainted with this book for the first time).

We just finished the last chapter of the first volume, where Jonathan Strange appears properly for the first time and he meets Vinculus. I had completely forgotten how amazingly funny this chapter was! Jonathan Strange imagining those horrid conversations with Arabella cracked me and Mum up so much that we had to pause for laughs a couple of times. I had also forgotten how witty and funny Arabella was, she has much more of a personality than I recalled. I had in fact forgotten many things about the first volume because I read it quite slowly the first time round.

Seriously, what do you think is up with the "Heart-break Farm" chapter? I'm very curious about it. I mean, the main thing that happens there is establishing that Laurence Strange was a terrible horrible disgusting person, and then he dies almost immediately. And of course, the explanation about Jonathan Strange's childhood and how he was pampered by his relatives is very important in understanding his character later on. But all in all, that particular chapter had me wondering very much whether I had missed something super important that Ms Clarke was building up :D

One curious thing I noticed when reading out loud: some characters are much easier to "voice" than others! I kind of try to act out the characters a bit when I read their lines, to give them a personality and all that. And I STILL haven't found the right voice for Childermass and VInculus! That is VERY annoying, because Childermass especially is very dear to me and I would like to give him a proper voice. Thankfully, I'm reading the Finnish translation so I don't have to make a pitiful attempt at a Northern English accent ;) Then again, I found the Gentleman's and Jonathan Strange's voices straight away, and their lines are some of my favourite bits to read.

I thought you might be interested in this Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell read-through/discussion that some journalist conducted last year when the TV adaptation was announced, looks like she did quite a bit of research and I've learned some very interesting facts! Here it is, in case you haven't found it already:

Hannah said...

Has it really been over a month since you wrote your comment?! I should have replied to this MUCH sooner! Bad Hannah, bad!

I really like reading out loud sometimes too and your mum is AWESOME for reading this book! I'm quite jealous to be honest! My family hates fantasy. I remember when my brother first got into 'Game of Thrones' I started to hope that it would be a "gateway" story for him but, yeah, it didn't happen.

Oh yes, this book is sooo hilarious at times and I love that part you mentioned! Personally I've always liked Arabella but it wasn't until I re-read this book for the second time that I realised just how important to the story she is. She definitely keeps Jonathan grounded and her "death" pretty much results in all hell breaking loose!

The "Heart-break Farm" chapter? Ah... the last time I read this book was back in 2011 - it's definitely time for a re-read! - and I don't particularly recall anything significant about this chapter apart from what you've already mentioned. So I don't have any potential new insights for you I'm afraid.

Thanks for providing me with that link! I've had a look at some of the posts and someone else put up a link to a very interesting interview from Susanna Clarke :)