Sunday, 14 August 2011

Book #36

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Centuries ago, when magic still existed in England, the greatest magician of them all was the Raven King. A human child brought up by fairies, the Raven King blended fairy wisdom and human reason to create English magic. Now, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he is barely more than a legend, and England, with its mad King and its dashing poets, no longer believes in practical magic. Then the reclusive Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey appears and causes the statues of York Cathedral to speak and move. News spreads of the return of magic to England and, persuaded that he must help the government in the war against Napoleon, Mr Norrell goes to London. There he meets a brilliant young magician and takes him as a pupil. Jonathan Strange is charming, rich and arrogant. Together, they dazzle the country with their feats. But the partnership soon turns to rivalry. Mr Norrell has never conquered his lifelong habits of secrecy, while Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous magic.He becomes fascinated by the shadowy figure of the Raven King, and his heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens, not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.

It's an intimidating tome at first - 1,000 pages, 69 chapters, and it has quite a weight to it that I've never really noticed in a book before. Upon finishing the story, though, I can only imagine this weight is due to the intricacies of the worlds that are held within the pages.

The novel isn't written as a fantasy novel as such. It reads a bit like Dickens, with some Austen thrown in, and the only way it could be described as a fantasy novel is that it's about magic. It isn't, however, your Harry Potter breed of magic. Clarke's 19th century magicians are concerned with the more poweful, disturbing, and eerie sort of magic. Magic that goes from our realm to elsewhere, magic that comes into contact with otherworldly beings (namely fairies), unknowable magic that sets your nerves on edge.

There were parts of this book where I felt horrible uncomfortable and uneasy. The eerie worlds that Clarke wove into the novel were very real, and very frightening. Her characterisation was absolutely spot on, and there was one character in particular whom I disliked greatly, and who terrified me. This was, of course, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, whom I will speak no more of in case I spoil the novel, and/or work myself up into a panic.

I was also a bit disturbed, but deliciously so, by the idea that as well as our own world, there are other worlds which are home to fairies and other beings. These worlds can be accessed by the fairy roads, and through mirrors. When I was younger, I was convinced there was another world just inside my mirror, so this came as a bit of a shock. In fact, as I’m typing this I’m mentally daring myself to turn my head to the left and look into my mirror. I still haven’t done it, it’s the eeriest thought that somewhere, or something, is in there.

Clarke also gives us subtle social commentary on 19th century politics, sexism, racism and poverty. It's wonderfully given to us as the idea that "Oh, this is the way it was back then. But, wow, weren't they wrong?"

Her research on her plot was undeniably thorough. I can't pretend to have a great deal of knowledge on 19th century England, Napoleonic wartime, or anything at all from this period, so I was at a loss at times to deduce what was historic fact and what was Clarke's invention. Sometimes I did wonder if she was playing upon something that did happen, and attributing it to magic. However, I am sure those of you who do have ample knowledge in this area would get a lot of pleasure from these parts of the novel.

I wasn't too sure whether I was satisfied with the climax or not. It wasn't an ‘everything has gone back to being nice’ kind of ending. It was tragic and devastating, but left wiggle room for a sequel (which, I believe, is being written as we speak). I am still trying to come to terms with it.

I could have written a better review on this. My thoughts are disjointed as I've just put the book down this second. I wish I could do this more justice, and be more coherent, but my brain is all over the place.

Anyway, this was beautifully written, the plot flitted gorgeously from person to person; the characters were lovely, frightening, pitiful and selfish. However, I wouldn't recommend it to just anyone. You have to really want to read it; you have to stick by it. It isn't a fast-paced adventure novel; it really is a queer little tale that takes time. I found it to be a rare treat, something that will stay in my mind for a long time. If your interest isn't piqued after two chapters, put it down and save your time. This book is not for you.

(I am still struggling not to look in this mirror.)

36 / 72 books. 50% done!