Friday, January 19, 2007

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I bought this book recently for comfort reading on the basis of many recommendations from people whose taste in books I like. It is a fantasy about an alternative early nineteenth-century England, a fantasy in which magic exists and affects history. The plot revolves around two magicians, Mr. Norrell -- who believes that magic should be brought back from being an arid theoretical exercise, but only if he is the only magician allowed to practise it -- and Jonathan Strange who begins as Mr. Norrell's pupil and ends up as a rival magician believing that magic should be available to all who wish to use it. An interesting setup for a leisurely afternoon of fun reading and as both magicians see magic as a political tool, perhaps a useful one for a would-be political blogger. Heh.

The book is the right thickness, too, ginormous. My plan was to combine it with chocolates for those times when a retreat from the real world was imperative. Perhaps not the noblest of reasons for reading but not as bad as some other alternative escapes.

Where was I? I'm turning as long-winded as the author of this book, Susanna Clarke. It takes about three hundred pages before much anything happens in the book, and I kept plodding along, getting heartburn from my chocolates, calling those knowledgeable friends with whiny demands about wanting to know when something would happen, should something ever happen except that I shall grow old and wear my trousers rolled.

At some point the book finally grabbed my interest and I finished it fairly quickly. Then I looked up some reviews of it, from the time when it was first published in hardcover, to see if my ideas were in accord with those of the Enlightened Ones.

I didn't find my main idea in the reviews I checked, but I'm sure it is out there, somewhere. Most ideas are. What struck me most after reading the book was the feeling that Clarke wanted to give us a book which moves from the writing style of Jane Austen's England, with its enlightenment-based dry-rational quips, to the pallid-moon-hovering-over-the-deserted-moors style of the Bronte sisters and the romanticism in general. I thought Clarke succeeded in this extremely well, but perhaps that wasn't the idea at all, given that so many reviews disliked the change in style and pace so intensely.

It's a flawed book in many small ways but that is not a bad price to pay for something so huge and expansive in ambitions.

By the way, the book is pretty much about men and their doings, so it is not a good choice for living vicariously through strong women's deeds. But I do agree with Belle Waring that the narrator of the book is a woman magician. The reason has to do with what the footnotes (used extensively to make up a history of magic in England) reveal to a careful reader. Several of them show that the narrator knows at least as much magic as the two male magicians described and a few of them describe events from a woman's point of view (about wearing best gowns and how hot they were, for example).