Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Harpy Reads: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

So one of the things I did when I was on my epic odyssey round Greece and Turkey (and if you saw what I did there you get extra Classics geek points) was read a lot. I read a fair bit anyway, but I knew that this was going to be a long trip that involved a lot of bus rides, ferry boats and generally waiting around in between doing the amazing things I had planned.

I know that when I left I took a selection of books, unfortunately I can’t find the photo of them that I’m certain I took nor can I remember them all. 

The one I really do remember though was this:


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a book I’ve tried to read so many times before, when it first came out (nearly ten years ago!) it got all sorts of rave reviews and stayed on the New York Time’s bestseller list for eleven weeks. I’ve bought at least three copies (from charity shops, my love of books does not exceed my love of being able to afford food) and they have sat there looking at me, willing me to read them before being sent back for taking up too much space. When I tried to read it I’ve always encountered the same problems.

It’s a very big book. Huge. 1024 pages according to Amazon. This means it’s heavy to carry around with you and it’s difficult to hold, especially if you’re like me and you have hands that cramp up easily.

It’s a slow burner. This is not a book that grabs you from the word go, I know people who are of the opinion that life is to short and if you have to stick with a book for more than 20 pages to get into it then it’s just not worth it. Stick with it for 50.

By the time you get to page 50 you will, I promise, be invested. It took a little while for it to fall into place for me just how clever Susanna Clarke had been, not only has she written a beautiful world, delightful characters and a charming story, she’s done it with style! This book is written in a way which echos a historical tome, it’s a little dry in places and there were passages that could have been cut to give it more zip and speed but that would have spoilt the overall effect.

Half fairy tale and half historic accounting.

The story centres around a single idea: it is 1806 and magic has left England, the great magicians of old have all faded away and are now remembered as “practical magicians” by the new breed of “theoretical magicians” who meet to discuss and analyse the idea of magic. The book opens at one such meeting where the young gentleman Mr Segundus is prompted to ask why magic has left England, where has it gone and will it ever return? These are not the sort of questions, it turns out, you ask at a meeting of English Magicians who cannot do magic. Something though is changing and through two men, see title, magic is being returned to England.

Can you guess how that goes? They both come at the same problem from essentially opposite directions and much chaos ensues.

Jonathan Strange, a young man who falls into magic almost accidentally as a means to impress a girl, is far closer to what I think most of us would expect a magician to approach magic, there’s a lot of airy fairy hippy imagination and creativity goes into his magic.

Mr Norrell is older and more curmudgeonly and set in his ways, he views magic as an academic undertaking, treating it almost scientifically as something limited and volatile.

There are so many other characters woven in, with so many wonderful stories of their own, the man with the thistle down hair, the King of England, the magnificent Stephen and the dreadful Drawlight, to name but a few. We follow these characters all over Europe, on a far more detailed tour of England and into the other realms that Clarke has created.

One of the things I most enjoyed was how Clarke had built her world in a parallel to our own and there were historical details sprinkled throughout to show how she’d done her homework. These ranged from the kinds of drinks and fashions her characters enjoyed to discussing how real Napoleonic battles might have gone differently had magic been a consideration.

I really enjoyed this book, once I got into it but like I said that took a few goes. This is perfect as a holiday read, if you’re going somewhere and you’ll have a lot of time to sit around and read and enjoy a good story unfolding then get this. 

Julian Fellows, of Downton Abbey fame, is currently adapting it into a feature length screenplay and the BBC are filming a seven part adaptation for television so give it a go and see what all the fuss is about.

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