Monday, May 12, 2008

Bringing the magic back to England

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)

Also reviewed at:
Books for Ears
This Delicious Solitude
Girl Detective


  1. AnonymousMay 13, 2008

    This has been on my TBR list for a while, but I just can't bring myself to commit to reading it still. I bought the paperback a few weeks ago, though; I'm planning to try sticking to it while I'm on holiday. :)

  2. Chayenne - I actually had to take a few breaks from it, especially at the beginning. If I were you, I'd take a few back-up books on holiday in case you find you need a little break, too!

  3. I found the footnotes fairly hard to read. I'm not a footnote person - I think they detract from the flow of the book, however it was the style she was writing and the backstory was fairly important. I just wish that it had been executed differently.

    That said, I have an exquisite hardcover edition that my husband bought me, and it has a built in ribbon bookmark. This thrills me, and made the reading easier (easily amused much?).

    I wonder how the CD version would have changed my opinion of it.

  4. Kait - I'm sure that listening to it made the footnotes a different experience. I didn't have the choice to ignore them and then go back at the end of the passage, or conversation, as I usually do. I felt that some of them were necessary for background information, and others were just the author taking off on flights of fancy and having a lot of fun with it!

    Ooh, a ribbon bookmark. That does sound nice! Every book should come with one. :-)

  5. It took me a while to get into this one as well, but once I did, I really did. And yes, her use of language really is quite something!

  6. Nymeth - you had mentioned that to me before, that it took you a while to get into it. So I kept that in mind, and it inspired me to keep going with the first part of the book. I'm glad I stuck with it - thanks!

  7. Oh no, now I'm really worried...I've got this one in my TBR pile, but I'm afraid if it takes me 400 pages to get interested, I'll just never make it. Though having that heads-up may be just the ticket to keep me plowing through it.

  8. Debi - there are people who rave about this book from the first page, and maybe you'll be one of them! I think if you approach it with the idea of putting it down when you need a break, but while you're reading it taking the time to just enjoy the language and flights of fancy, you'll have a good time with it. That's what worked for me, anyway!

  9. Isn't this an interesting book? I read it in 2006 and I still can't believe its been that long.

  10. Is it still pretty fresh in your mind? I think I will remember it for a long time to come!

  11. AnonymousMay 17, 2008

    I followed you from semicolon. I really enjoyed the book. It's been a few years, here's my review, but the thing I remember most is the complexity of the world--I was loathe to leave it. I loved the world of the novel, if not the characters themselves, who were flawed but fascinating.

  12. Thanks for stopping by, Girl Detective - and thanks for the link to your review, which I enjoyed reading. I've put the link here in my review, too! I know what you mean about the world - it was a very interesting place, and very well created. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much!

  13. I gave it the 50 page test a few months ago, and I just couldn't get interested. Maybe someday I'll try again, or maybe not.

  14. Sherry - I suspect that had I not put it down on my list for the Mythopoeic Challenge, I might not have stuck with it long enough to be glad I did. I think it's definitely the kind of book you have to be in the right frame of mind for.


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