Monday, July 12, 2010

In short, he wished to know why there was no more magic done in England

I am 12 chapters into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and I fear I didn't really know what I was getting into.  I mean this in the most wonderful way.  There's something about the book that, even before you begin reading it, feels timeless.  Maybe it's the simple cover or the fact that I feel like I've seen this book in a hundred places without ever really being able to place it.  A friend had brought it with him during a spring break trip to Ireland and while I remember him reading it on several of the long bus rides I don't remember him ever talking about it.  (I would think "who would bring a book like this on spring break" but I'm usually countered with "who goes to Ireland for spring break," so touche.)  Another friend also read it and recommended it without ever saying why, which was unusual for him as he generally would have be read especially interesting passages out of the books he was reading.  So maybe it's this initial mystery of the book, something other people were reading but weren't talking about, as if it were some inside joke or secret.

The style of the book certainly feels like an old book and again, I mean this as a compliment.  The book is an alternate history of England in the early 1800s and Clarke makes it feel like other books written at this time, like Austen.  After I had begun the book I double checked the inside cover to see when this book was actually published.  I'm sure a scholar of Victorian literature could explain to me all of the reasons this is wrong.  I don't mean Clarke's work is equal to Austen.  I haven't read far enough to say if that's the case, but I'm not a huge fan of work from this time period so I can't say if there is a different author from this time she sounds more like. 

The book, in a simplified summary, is an alternate history about magicians in England during the Napoleonic wars.  To me this sounds like it could be interesting or it could be very dry, depending on how much of the book is about the wars and how much is about magic.  What I didn't expect is how much it is about general life for the upper middle class and how much of the book is about dinners and card playing and gentlemen.  It's in this sense that it reminds me of the many dinners and dances of Austen's work.  I would not have previously said the forced courtesy of 19th century discourse is what I want to spend my free time reading but I'm loving it.  I'm sure the fact that it is about a magician, not matter how dull he may be, helps the matter.  And there is a humor to the interactions, a satire of the times that Clarke subtly employs.  Here's an excerpt that gives a good indication of the general tone and language
"You are a magician, sir?" said Mrs Wintertowne.  "I am sorry to hear it.  It is a profession I have a particular dislike to."  She looked keenly at him as she said so, as though her disapproval might in itself be enough to make him renounce magic instantly and take up some other occupation." (88)
I suppose Clarke's humor also reminds me of Dickens.  There's a smirking sarcasm to it that feels more like Dickens, although that could be because I'm also reading A Christmas Carole on my iPod Touch to see if I can get used to reading on there or if I should give in and get an e-reader. 

I will most likely have a few entries on other books while I get through this one.  I have a bit of reading ADD and as it is I'm supposed to be reading What's My Name, Fool? for my book club.  It's really more of a drink-wine-and-catch-up club but we at least pick out a book for everyone to read so I'll try to get to this one as well.  It gives me a chance to read books I wouldn't have picked up on my own.

Title quote page 4

Clarke, Susanna.  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, London.  2004. 


  1. Wow this sounds really interesting and totally up my alley. I look forward to your review!

  2. Thanks for stopping by Brenna. I'll probably have a few different entries on this book since it's so long (1006 pages in my copy). Hope you enjoy them and if there's any topic you think I should examine more just let me know! I'm always open to suggestions

  3. I started this a year or two ago and couldn't get into it - I'm thinking it might have just been bad timing, as, like you, I've heard wonderful (if vague) reviews of it, and really want to like it. Maybe I'll pick it up again this year.

  4. Kerry - I'm just at the tip of the iceberg with the book but so far I would recommend you give the book another try. I'm surprised that I am able to get into the story (usually this style holds me back) but there's something about it that draws me in. Hopefully the more I read the better I'll be able to articulate this!

  5. I have to tell you, even though your synopsis of the book wasn't very enthusiastic, it sure picked my interest.

  6. Man of la Books - I really am enjoying the book, though I see how my description isn't very enthusiastic. Hopefully as I get more into it I'll be able to better articulate what I like about it. So far I'm only 158 out of 1006 so I have a ways to go

  7. God, I LOVE this book! There's rumors of a new one in the works - not a sequel in the literal sense, but related. I cannot wait. I'm sure this will wind up on one of my top 10 lists ... hint, hint.

  8. Wow! 1006 pages? That's massive. I'll keep an eye out and let you know if there is any topic that I'm really interested in. Thanks :)

  9. Tyrie - I look forward to seeing your entry on it! I've had a few friends recommend it but whenever I ask why they liked it I get vague answers about there being a lot of footnotes and then I can't get any further details. I'm at least loving the footnotes so far!

  10. The footnotes are great, but for me it's just how the book is a combination of several things I love:
    fantasy: check
    academic: check
    historical fiction: check
    meta-textuality: check
    philosophical: check

    Plus, it doesn't hurt that one of my most beloved writers, Neil Gaiman, noted that it is one of the finest works of fantasy fiction in the last 100 years. That's HUGE!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.