Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Series: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Book 1
Author: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release Date: January 1, 2004
Genre: Adult Alternative Historical Magical Realism
Told: Third Person Omniscient, Past Tense
Content Rating: Older Teen (see Rating Content below)
Format Read: Paperback (9/29/09 edition)
Find It On: Goodreads

In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars in 1806, most people believe magic to have long since disappeared from England – until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers and becomes an overnight celebrity. Another practicing magician then emerges: the young and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s pupil, and the two join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wild, most perilous forms of magic, and he soon risks sacrificing not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything else he holds dear. Susanna Clarke's brilliant first novel is an utterly compelling epic tale of nineteenth-century England and the two magicians who, first as teacher and pupil and then as rivals, emerge to change its history.

*          *          *

Three Words: Daunting. Haunting. Magical.

My Alternate Title: How Magic Returned to England: A Detailed Account

Story: I went into this book with absolutely no idea of what to expect except one thing: British wizards. That alone was enough to pique my interest, and when this book came up on my college class reading list I pulled down the copy collecting dust on my bookshelf and set about finally getting around to this apparent "masterpiece," if the copious awards were to be believed. I discovered that Strange & Norrell is an extremely complicated story that spans several years, follows over a dozen characters, and takes place in several countries. However, it can be summed up in one sentence: it is the story of how magic returned to England. It is a long, many-faceted journey, but once it was finished the focus of the novel was plain.

The book is broken into three Parts, each named after the three biggest characters in the story. But this does not mean that the focus of the Parts mainly followed the named character - it simply signified a slight shift in the story. What those shifts were, though, I really have no idea. Overall it was an extremely long read but an interesting one. But long. But interesting.

Setting: Historical Europe but with the alteration of the addition of magic as a realistic, if initially antiquated, form of study. Several real historical figures play minor roles (mainly in the Napoleonic Wars), with their major accomplishments apparently unchanged despite the acquaintance and/or addition of magic. The description of the locations was rich and vivid, of the characters highly entertaining, and for such a long-winded book never felt particularly excessive.

Characters: One might assume that Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange are the focal characters of this book, but that would be incorrect. From the omniscient viewpoint of the author it focused on dozens and dozens of unique and colorful characters, following instead the story where it led. But this did not mean the book was "plot driven." On the contrary, after some thought and at least half the book I realized there was always a single presence in every scene, a main character and focal point of the entire book: that of magic. It's unusual for something as ethereal and incorporeal as "magic" to not only be the main focus of a story but also a main character, but it was. And what an exciting and mysterious main character it made.

A Note About Fairies: There are fairies in this book, but mainly just the human-sized Unseelie kind. As a reader who doesn't usually enjoy stories with or especially about fairies, I didn't feel put off by them in any way. They seemed more like a race of extremely creepy and mentally and morally unbalanced otherworldly humans from an extremely creepy and mentally and morally unbalanced otherworldly parallel realm. And they (or, namely, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair) added an unnatural and bewitching element that was a must for the story. Really, there wouldn't have been much of a story at all without the gentleman.

Writing: The overall prose and text was a bit unrefined, as if the editors grew tired of reading it over and over for mistakes and declared it "good enough" so they could move on to other, less daunting projects. I've read similar "British editions" though, so I may have been reading an un-Americanized version and just didn't know it. Otherwise, while it was an interesting story it could be a slow, rather thick read (and not just because it was 850 pages). It wasn't a particularly unpleasant read, though, just a long one.

Point of View: While on the surface this book appeared to be written in third person omniscient (aka from the "author as an all-seeing god" perspective) - which really was a must considering the dozen or more "viewpoint" characters the story follows - there were first person personal pronouns sprinkled throughout the text that suggested the author narrator might actually have been one of the characters in the story. This would've instead made it from a first person peripheral narrator (a secondary character observing and accounting the main character's story), but as the point of view broke other first person rules it's safe to assume the author meant the viewpoint to be considered third person omniscient. In other words, just don't think about it too hard and you'll get along fine.

Footnotes: I saw some reviews that couldn't stand the copious and sometimes multi-page footnotes, but I found them highly informative of setting and rather entertaining.¹ Writers are generally discouraged from infodumping off-topic from the current flow of the story, lest the reader grow lost or bored, but footnotes allow the author to cheat while still remaining true to the story's pace, as Clarke proves here with perfect execution.

¹I first encountered footnotes in The Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud and greatly enjoyed the snarky, off-topic musings about the enslaved demon's previous lives and observations. The footnotes here, while more historical of voice, were similarly inclined to contradiction of the main story and were used to elaborate and occasionally correct characters in their misconceptions and lies.

Series: While I thought this was a standalone, there is a "second novel" entitled The Ladies of Adieu and Other Stories, which is "a delicious collection of ten stories set in the same fairy-crossed world of 19th-century England ... [w]ith appearances from beloved characters from [Clarke's original] novel, including Jonathan Strange and Childermass, and an entirely new spin on certain historical figures, including Mary, Queen of Scots...." While I will definitely need a break from this world for a while, I would be interested to read this second novel someday.

Rating Content: While this is an "Adult" novel, I found the content mainly clean and, given the content of current Young Adult novels, perfectly suitable for a teenage audience. (Whether they would have the patience to slog through the beautiful but extensive story is a whole other matter.) Since this was such a voluminous novel and I read it over several months I cannot recall specific instances of content, but in general I do not remember any sensual/sexual content (if there was any do speak up, I would be curious to discover it) or language (but if there happened to be any at all it would've been "proper" and British and nothing strong). There was some violence and minor gore, especially during the two wars and near the end, but it was quick and not overly gratuitous.

Conclusion: While it proved a rather long and slow read, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was also beautiful and enchanting and I'm not sorry I put in the time and effort to read it. The British have a refined way about magic that I just love, and this was a stellar example. If you enjoy alternate historical magical realism and aren't daunted by a voluminous book, then I definitely recommend this impressive read.

For Fans Of: The Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud

Scribble Rating
3 of 5 Scribbles

No comments:

Post a Comment