Friday, August 3, 2007

Summer Reading: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Published: September 2004
Genre: Fantasy/Alternate History

Novel Recipe: Take the entire set of Harry Potter novels, place in a winepress and squeeze. Strain juice through a filter and discard seeds, skins, and other particulate matter. Cook until condensed into a thick syrup, skimming off the foam constantly. Add a liberal dose of Jane Austen until the mixture becomes loose and drinkable and stir vigorously before pouring into wine bottles. Allow to sit for ten years before serving with a garnish of The Silmarillion and a healthy sprinkle of World-building.

My Thoughts: A book about magic in England cannot be spoken of without the obvious comparison to Harry Potter, and the same is true with Clarke's debut novel. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is The Silmarillion to Harry Potter's The Hobbit. Strange & Norrell is dense reading, clocking in at between 800-1000+ pages (depending on your edition), and reads more like "Literature" than ordinary "Fiction," being written entirely in a style that recalls Jane Austen and sprinkled throughout with liberal footnotes (some of which take up more than half the page). The novel is not for the faint-hearted, but immensely rewarding for those who can look past its "stuffy" style.

Grade: For being a debut novel - A+
If it had been written by a more veteran novelist - A

From the Publisher:
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England's history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England--until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell's student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.

More Detailed Thoughts (and Spoilers):
I've been wanting to write a review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell since I bought the book a year ago. Unfortunately, due to classes, it took me nearly three months to finish it, and by then my impressions were too scattered to be of any use, and all I could do was insist that people I knew really really need to read it, without being able to explain exactly why. But now that I've read the book over a second time (this time in less than a week), I feel like I can give a coherent review, though it may spiral into the realm of swooning fangirlism before too long.

To begin with, I never heard or saw any of the hype surrounding this book when it was published in hardback. I merely saw the striking covers at the bookstore and thought the cover copy sounded like something I would read. It took another year or so before the book made it to mass market paperback for me to buy it. To give those who haven't seen it a taste of how well this book was received, the back cover not only contains the synopsis given above, but three quotes praising it, as well as a listing of awards Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has won (including the Hugo, World Fantasy Award, and Book of the Year from Book Sense), AND three solid pages of quotations praising it at the front.

Now, normally that much praise would make anyone wary. After all, can a book really be that good? The answer, at least from this camp, is a resounding yes. Susanna Clarke wrote Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in a style reminiscent of Jane Austen, complete with archaic spellings, sarcastic potshots, and social commentary on practically every character. Not only that, but the book contains hundreds of references and footnotes to other fictitious works and stories such that one could believe that Strange & Norrell really is a factual book. While some people might be tempted to skip the footnotes, thinking they are unimportant, I found some of the most witty lines of the entire novel in said footnotes. I think what amazes me the most about this novel is that Clarke's voice never slips in 800+ pages; the entire novel is solidly written in the Austen style. Add to that the fact that this is Susanna Clarke's debut novel, and one should easily be able to see why this woman is now my No. 1 author hero of all time.

And now that all the praise and fangirling has been taken care of, it's time to delve into the plot. As the synopsis states, Mr Gilbert Norrell, a hermit and book-miser, claims to be the first and only practical magician in England (as opposed to theoretical magicians, who sit around reading and publishing about magic) in more than 200 years. After some coersion and a rather impressive demonstration of bringing a woman back from the dead, the British government realizes how powerful a weapon they have in Mr Norrell, and set about having him help in their war against Napoleon. Mr Norrell grows famous for confounding the French Army by blockading all of their ports with illusionary war fleets made of rain among other tasks. As regard for English magic as a respectable profession grows, Mr Norrell finds himself innundated with attention even as he tries his best to continue destroying all other magicians in England with help from his servant John Childermass (who in looks is Severus Snape's doppelganger). Still, he ultimately finds himself a talented pupil in Jonathan Strange, a man who is every bit the charming, tempestuous, and mysterious magician that Norrell is not.

After Strange returns from Portugal, where he helped fight Napoleon at the front lines, he is understandably stifled by his teacher's reclusive tendencies (not to mention his habit of lying to Strange as if Strange were the competition). The two eventually part ways over whether faeries should be used in English Magic, and Strange spends much of the rest of the book attempting to provoke Norrell into an early grave.

Meanwhile, Mrs Pole, the young lady whom Mr Norrell brought back from the dead early in the novel, and Stephen Black, a servant, are placed under the enchantment of a faerie known as the gentleman with thistle-down hair. This gentlemen alternately fears and derides Strange and Norrell, and does his best to hinder their self-proclaimed mission of the Restoration of English Magic. While on a first read it is hard to figure out just how the plots intertwine, everything falls into place in the last third of the book (the volume titled "John Uskglass") with a seamlessness that is really breathtaking.

Historical figures such as the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, and (of course) Napoleon Bonaparte flit through the book. Many of my favorite lines occur when Strange meets Lord Byron during a self imposed exile from England; the two instantly dislike each other and write to their mutual publisher complaining of the other's shortcomings.

This is not to say that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell doesn't have its shortcomings. The parade of historical figures (especially when concerning the government) can be mindboggling, and the fate of Henry Lascelles feels particularly rushed. However, these are small complaints, and are easily overlooked. Despite all my effusive praise for this book, I will note that it is not for everybody. Many will, no doubt, find it heavy reading. The style and profusion of footnotes are sometimes reminiscent of assigned reading from classes in obscure English Literature, and the book is so very dense that it may require a second or third read to figure out exactly what happened to whom and when.

Still, for those who like their novels almost unbelievably smart as well as well-crafted, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is more than worth the effort.

4 comments:

Derek said...

I couldn't agree more--this is a really excellent book, and although it's been too long since I read it for me to write anything intelligent on it, I too remember being impressed by the elegance and scope of the writing.

20 years from now, when students are enrolling in Comp. Lit 3xx: Beyond Harry Potter: Fantastical Writing at the Turn of the 21st Century, this book will assuredly be on the syllabus.

Elaine said...

Derek, I can actually see Harry Potter fading out of mainstream literature in 20-50 years. I'm not convinced that it's solidly crafted enough to stand the test of time without new books coming out and pumping everyone up about it.

But definitely, in 20 years (heck, I could see an ambitious kooky prof doing it now), Strange & Norrell will be on a syllabus, and I'll feel old for reading it when it was relatively new.

Derek said...

Yes, definitely--I think that in 20 years, Harry Potter will still be studied, but it will be looked at more in terms of its societal impact than its literary merit.

Walrus said...

I more excited than ever to read this book. I will have to bump it up on my list!

PS: Loved the recipe!