Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke had enormous aspirations when she wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; a book with a strong plot and lots of potential.

I was really excited by this book initially, thinking that the story was going to be magically mesmerising. It is set in an alternative version of 19th century England, where practical magic that was once common place has now died out. Enter Mr Norrell, a man who claims to be the only practical magician in existence and who sets out to return practical magic to the world. It soon becomes clear, however, that there is a second and more personable practical magician in England, Mr Jonathan Strange.

Mr Norrell takes Mr Strange on as his apprentice, and it chronicles their different magical approaches and activities that culminate in their falling out – which as an enormous influence on the practice of magic in England.

The events all stem from one of Mr Norrell's most terrible magical acts – the raising of a young woman from the dead – and the consequences it has for the magical and human realms.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell falls into many different genres (historical, fantasy, classic) and so is a book that no doubt has a wide appeal.

It's biggest appeal to me was its authenticity. Clarke used many different techniques to make it feel as if it really were a 19th century book. Clarke also wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell in the language of the 19th century, very similar to the language of Austen or Dickens or Louisa May Alcott. She used real historical events but wove magical elements throughout and around them to give them their own distinct character.

There are wonderfully drawn charcoal drawings throughout the book that are very dark and blurry and are a perfect representation of the atmosphere that Clarke creates in the story.

The book has a significant volume of footnotes, a lot of which take up more room on a n individual page than the story itself. For the most part, I found these footnotes fascinating. Clarke has created an entire history of magic which she shares through the footnotes. I was astounded by this creative feat, initially at least, although I have to admit that I ceased to read them close to a half of the way through the novel.

Finally, Clarke successfully gave the book a very English feel. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell may have been based in an alternative world/universe but the language she used, the atmosphere she built and the characters that she created were so very English that it added a strong impression of realism to the story.

Did I love it?

I wanted to love it and I almost did, except that it was about 300 – 400 pages too long. This book looks and feels like a brick and is almost impossible to carry around with you for extended periods of time. By the time that I got half way through the story I was losing interesting, and by the time that I was ¾'s of the way through it I was skim reading.

I understand that Clarke was attempting to write an epic historical novel set in an alternative history or world (a la LOTR perhaps?) but the result was a lot of redious and unnecessary detail about the activities of the magicians and the other characters whose lives intersect with the magical realm. We read about a lot of different events and occurrences, but so few of them seemed to add anything to the plot.

Overall, I felt like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell had a lot of potential to be an enjoyable and unique book (despite its not so unique style and storylines), but I feel like Susanna Clarke got a bit carried away and in the end the result was a long and tedious novel.

5.5 / 8
Good and worth reading if you have the opportunity, but not one to get excited over.

What did you think of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - did it keep you interested for its entire length or did you lose interest like me?

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge was an interesting and somewhat unique read.

The protagonist, Desmond Bates was a Professor of Linguistics before he was forced to retire from his university career as a result of his deteriorating hearing. Four years after retirement, he is beginning to struggle with his freedom. He misses the routine of university and has made himself a daily routine that is no longer satisfying him. His relationship with his second wife Fred is beginning to flounder and he finds himself a pawn in a young university student's manipulative mind games.

Lodge has written Deaf Sentence largely as personal diary, from the first person perspective of Desmond. This is an effective way of telling the story because it provides us with an honest and uninhibited account of Desmond's experiences and thoughts on all the daily issues that affect him; his deafness, his relationship with his father and his wife and of course his adventures with Alex, the ominous PHD student that attaches herself to him.

As you can imagine if you were writing a diary of your own life, some parts are definitely more interesting than others, and I have to admit that I did skim those sections that didn't hold quite as much interest for me. I don't mean this in a bad way at all, if anything, it gave the book a more authentic feel.

At times, however, Lodge slips between the first and third person, which made the story seem rather halting and was both frustrating and uncessary.

It is the way in which the story in Deaf Sentence unfolds and changes that makes this book interesting.

The book begins almost as if it is going to be a comic novel about the difficulties of living with deafness. You can't help but laugh when you read about Desmond's failing batteries and whistling hearing aids. Just as you can't help but laugh at his visits to his ageing father's home and trips to the shopping centre for lunch where they both yell at each other across the table because they can't hear themselves speak.

(*Spoilers in this paragraph*) Progressively, however, the book's tone changes to something more serious. Deaf Sentence tackles much bigger themes than deafness. It looks at marriage, love, family, new life and death. We discover that Alex is revealed as a manipulator who is not to be trusted. Desmond's first wife died of cancer and Desmond himself assisted her to pass away without any pain. His father experiences a stroke before they can move him into a nursing home and he has to watch his father slowly fade away. Desmond visits Auschwitz and meditates on the nature of suffering. Finally and positively, a grandchild is born, little Desmond, bring new life and new hope.

The book is sensitive, but very realistic and I felt the choice of telling the story through Desmond's own words in his own diary greatly contributed to this sense of realism. You could sense Desmond attempting to solve those bigger and more profound life experiences and questions, but not really being able to capture what he wants to in his diary or even in his own mind.

Lodge himself admits that this book is close to being autobiographical. From what I understand, many of Lodge's usual themes and influences are very apparent in Deaf Sentence. His Catholic upbringing is reflected particularly in Desmond's wife Fred and her faith. He also drew on his own experience of deafness, academia and campus life to write this book. Having said that, the way in which Deaf Sentence is written seems to be a step away from his usual writing style, and whilst the diary entry style wasn't entirely successful, it served its purpose in portraying a unique interesting story in a realistic way.

5 / 8
Good, and worth reading if you have the opportunity, but there is no need to prioritise it. 

Have read anything by David Lodge before? What do you think of him as an author? I am interested in reading some more of his books in order to gain a greater understanding of him as an author.