In an alternate 19th-century England, magic is a thing of the past. Yes, there were once powerful magicians who performed marvelous, unbelievable feats of magic, but now magic is like Latin or ancient Greek: scholars dedicate their lives to studying it, but no one can actually perform spells anymore. It's the profession of nobleman who can afford to sit around studying old textbooks, and there are societies of learned gentlemen who meet to discuss magic and its history. It is considered eccentric, if not utterly ridiculous, to actually attempt to do magic.
But there is a prophecy of two men who will restore magic to England after an absence of hundreds of years. The men are completely different in personality and temperament: Jonathan Strange is creative, impulsive, passionate and curious. Mr. Norrell is self-centered, egotistical and timid. He hoards all the books of magic in England so that he can be the one to "control" the magic. But times are changing in England, and despite the two men's differences, they find their destinies entwined as a heartless foe preys on their country and loved ones.
It is hard to decide where to begin in describing my feelings about this novel - first and foremost, I'd have to say ambivalence. It wasn't until over halfway through the book (and it is a long book - 800 pages) that I began to like it, in fact. We are not introduced to the two main characters for a very long time - and the first one we meet is the highly annoying Mr. Norrell. Call me superficial, but I find it hard to enjoy a book if I haven't got a single character I can identify with. There aren't too many likable characters in this one, but after a while I did begin rooting for Strange (although he was fairly annoying at times as well).
The writing is exquisite - Moore's use of language is exceptional, and in the narration as well as the dialog she captured the feeling of 18th-century Britain very well. But at times I felt like screaming at her to get on with it, already, to stop meandering all over the place and tell the story. At other times the footnotes and off-topic ramblings captivated my attention. The third-person narrator got on my nerves - at times it was omniscient, going into people's thoughts and hearts and relating private things to the reader. But at other times it got all coy and would only give out bits of rumor or things written in letters, as though the book were a completely factual historical narrative. One kind of narration or the other is fine with me, but it must be consistent. The narrator shouldn't be omniscient at times and limited at others, just to suit the aims of the storyteller - otherwise, to this reader at least, it feels too contrived and throws me out of the story.
I do not know how I would feel about this book had I read it instead of listened to it on CD. The reader, Simon Prebble, did an excellent job, although I did find it disconcerting when he mispronounced the word "sidhe," a particularly important and often-used word in the book, because it took away a bit of his authority as the storyteller. Aside from that minor quibble, though, his narration was very compelling. Listening to the book rather than reading the text makes me slow down and really take in the language, rather than rushing through to see what happens next - that is not an option with an audiobook.
In the end, I was glad I had read this book, and I have the feeling that the characters and events will stay will me for a long time to come. But I don't have the feeling that it will be a book I'll be rereading in the future. This was one of my picks for the Mythopoeic Award Challenge, and I can certainly see why it won the award!
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke; narrated by Simon Prebble (MacMillan Audio, 2004)
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