Adventures in Reading

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Pt. 2
January 4, 2008, 7:29 am
Filed under: book reviews, fiction
“If other magicians think differently from you, then you must battle it out with them. You must prove the superiority of your opinions, as I do in politics. You must argue and publish and practice your magic and you must learn to live as I do — in the face of constant criticism, opposition and censure. That, sir, is the English way.” From Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

I find Susannah Clarke’s extent of historical accuracy even more interesting because I am sure that the basic premise of her book could have been delivered with far less effort (though it undoubtedly would have been much less wonderful). In the early 19th Century English magic has been forgotten though it remains widely accepted that magic was once done. This is so widely accepted that theoretical magicians – a gentlemanly calling – still exist to debate and discuss magic. Mr Norrell then appears after leading a largely secluded life to challenge the York Society of (Theoretical) Magicians that he indeed is an actual practicing magician, and so starts the first few chapters of the book.

The story line does move slowly in a sense as the first volume of the novel “Mr Norrell” describes the rebirth and reestablishment of magic in England. Mr Norrell moves into society and goes up to London in an attempt to make magic available to the government and their fight against the French. Mr Norrell eventually succeeds in bringing about the rebirth of English magic, but only after resurrecting a dead young woman. From here, volume two or “Jonathan Strange” is introduced and he quickly becomes Mr Norrell’s pupil.

The novel is fascinating, and I must agree with many reviewers in saying that despite the length of the book I gladly wish it were longer. Clarke has a beautiful and rich imagination that delivers an almost earthy or common description of her world, her characters, and her magic. By this I mean I seldom felt that suspension of disbelief was required and for most of the novel whole heartedly would believe anything the author said. Likewise, Clarke has a tremendous sense of character development and gracefully shifts from one character to the next without leaving the reader as if something is lacking.

Prior to my acquaintance with the novel, I regularly heard it referred to as a grown-up Harry Potter, which I now frankly see as an insult. (Or at least a lousy publishing ploy to attach Clarke’s book with something “hot.”) My only complaints while reading the novel are (1) that the novel has not yet been published in three separate volumes and (2) that the illustrator Portia Rosenberg did not have more drawings included in the novel. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a novel well worth investing the time and effort in reading, and I very much look forward to the next work by Susannah Clarke as well as the film adaptation due out (I believe) sometime in 2008.

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