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Book: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

January 26, 2008
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Don’t you love it when you find a book that totally captures you and you fall head over heels for it and find yourself thinking about it while driving to the grocery store or waiting at the printer? I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I have to say, however, that it was a very English sort of love (being a very English book) — all proper and restrained and not prone to long rhapsodies. That said, it was fantastic and I loved every page.

This was a long book, as I’ve said — almost 800 pages. The pacing was leisurely but sort of understatedly suspenseful… there were lots of mini-mysteries along the way that I had to keep reading to make the dots connect. It was sort of like a Dickens novel… lots of characters (but not too many), sly humor tossed in here and there, meandering travels that are too fun and interesting to hurry through. Some reviews I read compared it to Harry Potter, but I didn’t get that at all. Harry Potter is all bright colors and chatty kids and ooooh ahhh (don’t get me wrong, I loved the HP books very much). To me this was much more Jane Austen (which it was also compared to). Very English, somewhat restrained. But irresistible.

It’s the tale of two rival magicians, set upon ‘bringing proper English magic back to England’ in the 1800s. It’s a mix of historical realism and fantasy, which I liked. Magic’s fallen out of use, people have forgotten it, and it’s only studied theoretically. Until one magician (a person who studies magic as a profession) figures out the trick to doing real magic again, and that’s when the doors open and magic starts to flow back into England (sort of). He takes a student, who soon surpasses him, and then everything starts to happen. I really enjoyed this depiction of very proper English gentlemen performing all sorts of magics with varying degrees of surprise at their successes (and failures).

The whole book reminded me of one of my favorite young adult authors, John Bellairs. It was like an adult version of one of his books (sort of). The John Bellairs books (usually illustrated by Edward Gorey, there’s a hint about the kind of books he wrote) usually had a very creepy somewhat supernatural story line — very gothic, but also funny and extremely engaging. Jonathan Strange isn’t exactly creepy or supernatural, but it is sort of gothic, and I always enjoy it when ‘real’ people are faced with things only previously told about in tales. Real darkness, real evil, and tragedy occur. Characters are complex and you are left to your own devices to figure out what you think about them (which I like).

Some things I didn’t exactly love: the author uses extensive “footnotes” to refer to “historical” documents and lore — which is clever and sometimes fun, but I got tired of them and only skimmed them towards the end. I couldn’t quite determine the purpose of them — the book doesn’t read like it’s supposed to be a fictional non-fiction (if you follow me) — it reads like a novel. So I don’t quite get why all the footnotes. They are clever and they do sort of round out this world that she’s created, but they can be very long and wordy and sometimes rather pointless (which I think was kind of the point). Anyway — I appreciated the device but since I didn’t really miss anything if I didn’t read them, I kind of stopped reading them (although I’m too much of a rule-follower to not at least glance at each one).

Also, there is an understory happening, a deeper and darker mystery (about the Raven King — the original and most powerful English magician/king of Fairy), which doesn’t get developed as fully as I would have liked — the times when the understory pops through into the main story aren’t quite as… satisfying as I wished. Maybe that, too, is the point. But I felt like there was more going on than we were allowed to know (which is what the magicians in the story felt, as well — so again, maybe that’s the point), and I wanted more of this darker stuff to be explained or explored. So maybe there’ll be another book and that will get further explored.

One more small disappointment: the ending. I suppose it was a fair-enough ending, but it happened rather quickly (after all 800 pages) and wasn’t very satisfying, either. Maybe I just wanted a fairy-tale ending after all that magic.

However, none of those criticisms damped my enthusiasm for this book — I totally loved it and am left with that longing for more that always marks a favorite for me. We’re going to the library today and I think I might dig up a John Bellairs or two, for old times’ sake.

For more reviews, better than I can write, click here.
Especially this:
“Forget media speculation about the huge advance and the Booker Prize long-listing: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is not a book for cocktail gossip around a hip, urban table. It is a book for a favourite armchair, for readers in patched cardigans, with log fires and buttered muffins. Should your present circumstances offer none of these comforts, do not be deterred. You need only dip into this big, bubbling cauldron of a book to feel that Clarke has conjured them all for you … Clarke’s creation of a magical kingdom that can be fully cross-referenced lies more in the tradition of Tolkien than Dickens, her episodic storytelling reminded me of George Meredith, while the footnotes might have been added by a mystical Casaubon. A Wildean elegance is evoked each time a gentleman pauses on his front steps to adjust his gloves, or turns his wit on a hostess’s wallpaper. This novel doesn’t pretend to be as serious as the classics it admires, but it has an awful lot of fun dressing up as them…”

And this:
“This 800-page work of fantasy … posits an extraordinary alternative history of England where magic, fairies, spirits and enchantments were once part of everyday life … the book darkens as rapidly as the sky on a wintry English day, becoming an increasingly bleak meditation on professional envy, betrayal, revenge, madness and despair. The spells, visions and enchantments, once sources of wonder and amazement, become infernal nightmares instead… Perfectly balanced between outlandish fantasy and richly detailed historical reality, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell deserves to be welcomed into the modern literary canon, not just the bookshelves of fantasy geeks. It’s pure magic.”

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