Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke

15 April 2008

When it came out in 2004, some reviewers suggested that Susanna Clarke's incredible debut novel 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' was "Harry Potter for grown ups". This epic tale of two magicians in 19th century England certainly has some similarities with Harry Potter but it's much more than that. Clarke creates a world that is both historically accurate but surreally magical - a parallel universe more like those of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' novels. But she has also written a 19th century novel - with explanatory chapter titles, plate illustrations, peculiar (but wholly consistent) spellings and masses of footnotes. The footnotes are essential reading - filling in a comprehensive back-story of several centuries of 'English magic'. In case this all sounds a bit scholarly, I should emphasise that 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is a very funny book - with some of the 19th century whimsy of 'Three Men in a Boat'. It has a great cast of characters and intricate plotting worthy of Dickens. At more than 1000 pages it is a mammoth achievement - with some seeds planted very early on which satisfyingly flourish as the tale reaches its climax. I am wary of saying anything about the plot as part of the joy of the book was having no idea where it was heading - or even what period it was going to cover. There are some great 'Zelig' moments where the magicians brush against actual historical events - though more in the fashion of 'Doctor Who'. But best of all is Clarke's ability to judge the fine line between dropping clues to the direction of the story and risking signalling it too obviously. For me she was just about spot on: time and again I had the satisfaction of realising that I had seen something coming without having guessed it too early. 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is an amazing, wonderful book - it is very long but I really didn't want it to end and now I want to read it all again. Brilliant!



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