Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

jonathan strangeNot many authors present as their first publication such a big book as Susanna Clarke did. Big in word count and ambition, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell enters the field of fantasy as an immediate classic. Though not only fantasy. 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.

The book starts with a rather slow pace, and I’ve noticed that it fails to hold people’s interest in this first part. But this way, Clarke lets us know that the book is not about quick moving plots, but about tone and style and manners.

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 recognition 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. This 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 references to 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 patchment of a wide variety of styles and moods, ranging from pure fantasy to military literature to gothic horror. Very entertaining and impressive.

The BBC has adapted the book as a TV series. I haven’t watched it yet, but please tell me your opinion about it.

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2 Responses to Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

  1. The adaptation has been brilliant so far – I would definitely recommend it. I haven’t read the book yet, but you have reminded me to put it on my ‘to read’ list!

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