Monday, February 27, 2006

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel - Book Review

I had recently run out of good options for books to read and I came across ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel’ by Susanna Clarke. I had just read a few serious books and was more in the mood for some fantasy and it had been ages since I have read anything good in this genre. I thoroughly enjoy the Harry Potter books but they are extremely light and I am usually done with them within a week. I saw this novel on the book shelf at Aksara and it looked interesting enough, not to mention very long.

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me…

“Centuries ago, when magic still existed in England, the greatest magician of them all was the Raven King. A human child brought up by fairies, the Raven King blended fairy wisdom and human reason to create English magic. Now, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he is barely more than a legend, and England, with its mad King and its dashing poets, no longer believes in practical magic.

Then the reclusive Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey appears and causes the statues of York Cathedral to speak and move. News spreads of the return of magic to England and, persuaded that he must help the government in the war against Napoleon, Mr Norrell goes to London. There he meets a brilliant young magician and takes him as a pupil. Jonathan Strange is charming, rich and arrogant. Together, they dazzle the country with their feats.

But the partnership soon turns to rivalry. Mr Norrell has never conquered his lifelong habits of secrecy, while Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous magic. He becomes fascinated by the shadowy figure of the Raven King, and his heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens, not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.

Elegant, witty and utterly compelling, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell creates a past world of great mystery and beauty that will hold the reader in thrall until the last page.”

The story is set in the early 1800’s. The author has taken the time and paid attention to numerous details in order to weave her tale into factual history surrounding that era. Clarke displays awesome usage of the English language pertaining to the grammar of that age which in turn sprinkles hints or realism to this fantasy. Her descriptions of the behavior and appearance of her characters are all validated and even references to settings and architecture have been well examined.

The first few chapters were a task to get through. Her pages are filled with footnotes and references to ancient magical fairytales and literary references to books that only exist in her imagination. This somehow made me feel like I was reading a text book. However, once drawn into her fantasy I found those footnotes not only to be essential but very interesting and entertaining. They clearly assisted in adding that to that aura of realism.

It may seem strange to associate realism to what is clearly a fantasy novel, but no matter how out of the ordinary a tale might be, I believe that it still has to be believable in order for it to achieve any cult status. Both “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia”, which are arguably the 2 most famous fantasy novels at the moment, have in my opinion have managed to bridge fantasy with reality. By this I mean that they both represent characters that have strengths and weaknesses, similar if not the same, as ours. In ‘Jonathan Starage and Mr. Norrel’, I would dare to say that Susanna Clarke has turned it up a notch.

The story gets off to a slow start with the author clearly taking her time to lay the foundation for the world in which her characters exist. It apparently took 10 years to write this book so while reading it one must stop and admire the work that has gone into it. There is so much attention to detail in this creation of a parallel dimension that at certain times the reader is forced to wonder if these situations could really have occurred. At other times the reader feels as if they are studying a history of magic.

With more than 1000 pages filled, Clarke has introduced some unforgettable characters to literature that I hope will survive to feature in a sequel. They portray both the lighter and the darker side of human nature. Some people have referred to ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel’ as the ‘Harry Potter’ for adults. I would have to disagree. Although this novel contains elements of mystery and magic it is not as teeming with it as ‘Harry Potter’ is. The magic here is more subtle and not as glamorous. This gives it a darker edge that appeals to me.

Authors like Clarke have an imagination that is beyond my comprehension. It is as if they live in worlds apart from the common one where we live in. How else could they describe in such detail places and events that don’t even seem to exist? Tolkien invented his own language and maps of countries for his fantasies and in turn Clarke makes numerous references to volumes of books about magic and magicians that wrote them just to give strength to her story. In my opinion this novel is a masterpiece and a MUST READ for anyone who enjoys this genre. ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel’ is one of the best escapes I have had in ages.


treespotter said...

you might like Neal Stephenson Baroque Cycle... except for the size of it, it's actually very, very good.
(i post my reading list online, you might like em, though this is the only one of the period kind - story's set in the 1600s).

btw, i'm not a hater. i hate very few things... very few..

Avi said...

thanks mate.. ill check it out. i am all out of good books right now.

Seal&Vito said...

si, si