So. I’ve been buried in this book, ever since I got it from the library. And, what an experience that was! I was attending the fiction writing workshop
at a library, and after nibbling on a few sandwiches, I spent the rest of the lunch break looking at the books. How can you sit and eat when you’re surrounded my countless magical shelves of old, rich smelling books?
I noticed this huge book and read the title: Jonathan Strange and…. I literally squealed. I wanted this book for ages. A man sitting next to me reading started, and looked up, wide-eyed, as if he thought I was a freak. I plastered a very awkward smile on my face, snatched the book, and sort of ran away. I was carrying a very tiny bag with me, so for the rest of the workshop, I had to keep the book on the table, for everyone to see, smile and question about.
Getting back to the book; it is, as you can see, enormous. I couldn’t write an entire review with all the elements I want to talk about, even if I wanted to. So, I’ve decided to write about each Volume separately and I finished reading Volume I, yesterday. Let me start with appearance. I love the simple black-and-white cover, that lets on so little about the book. My copy looks sort of old (even though the book was released in 2004) and worn and very beautiful; it’s a paperback and I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to read such a huge hardback. The illustrations (by Portia Rosenberg) look like pictures right out of a book of magic.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a book about two English magicians, set in the 19th Century England (with an alternative history; one where magic existed) around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The writing has a very formal Victorian-ish air to it, but the language is never too heavy to get through. The archaic spellings and that touch of deadpan humour adds a sort of style to the book. Not to mention, the often foot-long footnotes make the world Clarke has created even more real and quite enchanting.
Volume I introduces us to Mr. Norrell, who is seemingly the only practical magician left today (practical magic died out centuries ago.) Mr. Norrell is quite unlike the image, that gets conjured up in your mind when you think of a magician. He is a tiny man, who easily goes unnoticed. He doesn’t like big crowds and lives at the outskirts of a city of York, alone in a big house with an enormous library. When asked to perform magic by all the theoretical magicians of York, to prove that he can, he does it; but on one condition. Once he proves that he can perform practical magic, every theoretical magician must give up his profession. That says a lot about Mr. Norrell. He is proud, wants to keep all the glory to himself and wants to bask in the limelight; but is too anti-social to know how to make people respect him. Our story really begins, when Mr. Norrell, on having made every magician in his town quit magic, leaves to London, intending to revive practical magic in England.
Right from the very start, Clarke builds up the story beautifully; while on the one hand we read about Mr. Norrell’s antics in the city of York and later in London; on the other, we are slowly introduced to the legendary Raven King, a powerful magician who ruled the human and Faerie kingdoms; without whom, arguably, there would be no magic at all. We are also briefly introduced to the other key character of the novel, Mr. Strange. We know that he goes on to become Mr. Norrell’s pupil, but how he gets there and why is quite a mystery; considering how possessive Mr. Norrell is about magic! The book is very Harry Potter-esque, in a way, because I feel the same kind of awe, when reading it, that I felt all those years ago. The descriptions of the magic performed in the book made me almost shiver with excitement. Not to mention, the frequent realization that something BIG is about to happen.
Neil Gaiman calls it the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years, and I think I already know why. I can’t seem to be able to put it down…
P.S. – For those of you, who want to get a taste of Clarke’s writing, before taking on a 1000 page book – here‘s a beautiful little short story by her, that you ought to try! Just follow the link.