27 October 2010

Chunkster (and TBR) challenge review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Genre: Fantasy, alternative reality
Year of publication: 2004
Setting & time: England (mostly), Spain, Italy; Early 19th century

Mr. Norrell, a gentleman magician - the first to do genuine magic is several centuries - proves that magic has not disappeared from England and offers his assistance to the government in the fight against Napoleon. He is a very selfish man and in order to make sure no-one else can compete with him, he buys all the books on magic he can find and collects them in his well-guarded library, and prevents others from trying to do or learn magic. When another gentleman magician, Jonathan Strange, appears on the scene, Norrell is at first hostile, but eventually he accepts the young man as his apprentice. But that is only the beginning …

At a whopping 845 pages, this is the longest book I have read in quite a while, but unlike some other long books I have read (e.g. The Historian) it would have been very difficult to prune anything from it. The narrative is rich and imaginative and the story rolls on at a fairly even pace, but it is so well written and rich in detail that the pacing doesn't matter. This is not the kind of book one absolutely has to read and read and read until one drops, but rather one you can read a couple of chapters in, lay it aside for a day or two, and then continue, and the break isn’t going to affect your immersion in the story one little bit.

This is a cosy read, the kind of book one curls up with, anticipating something wonderful, which it delivers in spades. The well-defined characters become like one’s old friends, and like old friends, one gets impatient with them when they are being stupid or stubborn, but in the end they are forgiven because of the pleasure they have given.

Neither of the titular characters are completely likeable, although one tends to side with Strange, because of his openness and willingness to share information and train more magicians, which stands in clear contrast to the mistrustful selfishness of Mr. Norrell, who seems to want most of all to be the only magician in England. But while he is cast as a sometime antagonist to Strange, he isn’t the true villain of the book – that is left to a whimsical and malevolent being that likes to play with humans like they are toys but who doesn’t fully understand them.

This is an enchanting tale of magic, a a magical narrative about enchantment and illusion, and eventually a tale of heroism and sacrifice. The frequent footnotes provide interesting diversions and make the story a bit like a biography or an academic text – although in the best way possible. The world-building is flawless – based on historical Europe in the main points, in Clarke’s hands it becomes something and once exotic and familiar, strange and yet comfortable.

Highly recommended, a keeper. 5 stars.

P.S.
Apparently there is a film in the making. I hope it will do the book justice.

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