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.
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?