Monday, August 24, 2009

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

Posted by lea at 12:07 PM
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the work of first time author Susanna Clarke, and appears to have caused quite a stir in the world of fantasy fiction since its publication. A behemoth at 800 pages, this novel would have benefited from tighter editing of its lumbering footnotes and meandering episodic forays that don't contribute towards the main plot.

The story, however, is intelligently told and well written: a parallel magical history of England during the 1800s and the revival of English magic by two of its foremost practitioners of the day, the book's namesakes, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. There are touches of the usual fantasy elements of prophecy and fate, but it's not so much about magic and its technical aspects as it is about these two men and their all-consuming desire to learn and re-introduce magic into the English realm. But where fantasy heroes often have redeeming characteristics, these two are not particularly likable, and are kept from the reader at an arm's distance by Clarke's writing, which makes it difficult to really get into the book. Mr Norrell, in particular, is a character who is genuinely hate-worthy. His insecurity, pride, jealousy and narrow-mindedness are maddening.

Where the book really loses out is its lack of focus and forward movement. It moves laterally so often and for so long that it's one of those books that are easy to put down and not pick up again. But that would be a mistake, because the ending is extremely intense (unlike so much of the book) and enjoyable. The climax comes very suddenly right at the very end, with an emotional connection that most of the earlier part of the book fails to achieve. It still leaves a few questions unanswered, but it is a good reward for having gotten so far and read so much.

Overall, it was a good read, a great effort for a first-time author (although fairly damning for its editor) but would have been twice as good if it had been half as long.

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