Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury, 846 pages
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England—until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.
Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is one of those books that passed by my radar, and I briefly considered reading it because I knew some people liked it…until I saw its length. Then I walked away, thinking that this is probably one of those books that I will not read anytime soon, and I would be quite content not to read it within my lifetime since it’s too thick, and I’m not exactly a huge fantasy reader anyway.
But you know what’s the most effective way for me to read a book that I never thought I’d be reading ever? Peer pressure. Or, give it to me as a gift. That is exactly what my friend Aaron did last Christmas, and I always make it a point to read the books gifted to me. The good thing is, he also gave a copy of this book to other friends in the book club, so we formed a little reading group for this last April to get us through this chunkster together.
It’s not that I was really intimidated by it. After all, I finished the tome that is Les Misérables. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is like, 700 pages less than Victor Hugo’s book. This should be easy.
It’s the 19th century, and magic has been long dead in England. Or so people thought, until an English gentleman named Gilbert Norrell showed everyone that magic is not dead. He becomes the only magician in England for a moment, helping the English government win in the Napoleonic wars, and maybe raising a certain dead woman on the side, too. Then another magician comes – young Jonathan Strange, who becomes Mr. Norrell’s apprentice. But the two of them are as different as night and day: while Norrell relies on books and follows magic to the letter, Strange likes to play with it, try new things and maybe even find a way to summon the Raven King just to learn more about magic. Clashing personalities, fairies, prophecies, war and a ton of footnotes follow these two magicians,
I finished reading this book in 34 days, 4 days late than the supposed reading schedule. I figure I would have finished this earlier if my April wasn’t so busy, because Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is quite engaging. The old English language wasn’t so hard to understand, and we get treated to interesting characters and situations from the start. I honestly had no idea what the book was about when I started reading it except that it was about these two people on the title, and for a moment I thought Strange was Mr. Norrell’s biographer. Heh. The book isn’t just about magic, though, or just the two gentlemen. If it was, then it would’ve been far shorter, yes? This is part historical (or alternate history, rather), so I found myself in a lot of war scenes in the book that were far more interesting than the ones I read in Les Misérables. Case in point: I slogged through the Waterloo part of Les Mis but breezed through the one here, because of Jonathan Strange. It is true: magic makes things more interesting. ;)
Another thing that I can’t not mention about this book is the footnotes, and the sheer amount of them. I don’t mind footnotes — in fact, I find them quite fun when I encounter them in books. Granted, they were distracting, especially when they span pages and pages in the book, just like how it was in this book. Theyr’e not really important, but as some of my buddies said, it provided a richer reading experience of Strange and Norrell’s story.
I enjoyed reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I really did. Perhaps my only gripe in this book is how it really dragged at some point. It wasn’t exactly boring — not as boring as say, that chapter on Parisian slang in Les Mis, or the part about the sewer — but man did they drag. The second volume was interesting, but it took a really long time before some things really started happening. I suppose, like Les Mis, it adds more texture to the story, but it can get pretty tiresome after some time. Let’s get moving, please.
I have to hand it to the author, though, because when things started happening, they really started happening. Then I find that I can hardly put it down. While I wouldn’t exactly describe the last part unputdownable, the action made me want to just keep reading because I need to know how it ends. I liked how the ending wrapped up a lot of the loose ends in the first parts, but not without leaving a few more to leave the readers longing a little. Getting to the end was slightly bittersweet because I spent a lot of time in their world, and also just because of that ending.
So while there were some dragging parts, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was quite enjoyable, even for someone who was peer pressured to read it. ;) It’s a happy kind of peer pressure, though! And yeah, add me to the list of people who’s excited to see its BBC adaptation. I’m quite excited to see how they’d show the magic on the screen…and that man with thistle-down hair. :)
My copy: trade paperback, Christmas gift from Aaron