Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book: Susanna Clarke - Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)

Not many authors present as their first publication such a big book as Susanna Clarke did. Big in wordcount and ambition, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell enters the field of literature as an immediate classic after Clarke had been working on it for a decade. At times, her book is alternate history in which England once had magical fairy-infused past, or an historical novel set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

Mr. Norrell, a grumpy, boring, serious man who reminds me of the actor that plays Mr Beckett in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and his pupil Jonathan Strange, the typical English gentleman given by flights of fancy, are two talented magicians who, as the only real magicians of England, work to rediscover the workings of magic. In the process they become each others adversaries and in the ensuing battle for recognision the boundary between sanity and madness begins to shatter. Meanwhile, a gentleman with thistledown hair, brought into the world as the result of amoral use of magic by Mr. Norrell, begins to haunt their steps and the English societal landscape.

All this is an smashing counterpoint to proper English decency. Here is one of the main points of Clarke’s novel. The exploration of Victorian Englishness as a sort of comedy of manners. In this, and the elaborateness of her work, like the shimmering of a compendium of magical scholarship, her book has evoked many comparisons with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite something else. It is a flowing patchwork of a wide variety of styles and moods, ranging from pure fantasy to military literature to gothic horror. Very entertaining and impressive.

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