Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (also available in paperback). I read the reviews quite a while ago and was looking forward to reading it, although a bit hesitant as it is almost 800 pages (which translates to over 36 hours in audio format) - that's a big investment of time.

The book is about the renaissance of magic in England in the early 19th century, starting during the Napoleonic wars. Magic has left Britain long ago, leaving only the theoretical magicians who are unable to actually perform magic. However, a Mr. Norrell is enticed out of seclusion, demonstrates his ability to do quite spectacular magic, making statues talk and raising a woman from the dead. He subsequently hoards the magic, buying up all books about magic in England and blackmailing theoretical magicians into giving it up, leaving him the only magician in England. Some years later, he takes on a pupil - Jonathan Strange - with whom he later has a falling out, as they have quite different approaches to the application of magic: Mr. Norrell believes in exerting a very British control over magic, attempting to eradicate the influence of old, fairy magic in favour of very practical, rather bureaucratic spells, whereas Jonathan Strange is more reckless and wishes to reconnect to the old magic.

The reviews initially added to my hesitation in starting this book. The ones I read, although generally positive, tended to have issues: the book was thought too detailed, too wordy. It had apparently been touted as “Harry Potter for adults”, but reviewers were missing the awe-inspiring, whizbang, jaw-dropping wonder of spells, feeling that the amount of detail offered prevented the reader from oohing and aahing over the spectacular feats of magic. They felt that the characters were kept at arm's length from the readers.

I couldn't disagree more. The book is very British, very stiff upper lip British. It is a history (complete with a wonderful footnotes) of the renaissance of English magic, Clarke writing as if it were authored sometime in the latter part of the 19th-century. Yes it is fussy, yes it is at times pedantic, but in the best possible way. It is the world much like our own - Wellington still fights Napoleon, King George is still mad - except for the magic. I loved the detail - all the words paint a picture, cast a spell, enabling you to disappear into an alternate universe. As a writer, Clarke is a master painter, dazzling you with descriptions like “[t]here was an elderly bunch of celery that had lived too long - and too promiscuously - in close companionship with the charcoal for its own good” and “[a] small box, the colour of heartache”. Now, that’s awe-inspiring – I frequently had to stop reading for a while to absorb the beauty of her language. But, as with all things British, you have to pay close attention to the nuance, subtlety and whimsy, you have to be prepared to see the emotions behind the exquisite control of English gentlemen (and ladies) of that age.

A review of this book is not complete without rhapsodizing about the reader, Simon Prebble. He doesn't merely read this book, he makes it come alive, perfectly capturing Mr. Norrell's fussiness, Lord Wellington's brisk command, the peevish sociopathy of a certain ‘gentleman with the thistledown hair’ (the fact that this character is never called anything else is part of the book's brilliance). It is the perfect marriage of book and narrator.

The funny thing is, when I first started reading audiobooks, I never expected to get so much more out of the format. Just as when I read The Historian, after finishing Jonathan Strange, I realized that had I read this as a 'normal' book, I would likely have read too quickly. I would have skimmed over much of the beautiful language, perhaps even been frustrated at the detail in the fussiness - or maybe not. I love books like this. Having it read to me by a master narrator, where I heard every single word enhanced the experience immeasurably. I didn't want to do anything but read, spending days being annoyed that I had to do other things. I cannot recommend this book enough and I cannot recommend the audio version enough. Yes, it's a large investment of time (and given the length, reading it in book form could substitute for weightlifting), but if you love historical novels and if you love perfectly created worlds, you will never want to leave the universe of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.