EPS Review #129 - Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury 2004, 1006pp.

I picked this up on the way to China, because it was big and looked like it would last the two-week trip. It did.

The story is set in the early 1800s, when English magic has faded from a fabled past to a bunch of historians calling themselves magicians. Then two men appear who really can do magic. Mr. Norrell is bookish and inhibited; Mr. Strange is more intuitive and experimental. As an indirect result of one of Mr. Norrell's bolder strokes of magic -- raising a dead woman with a fairy's help -- Mr Strange's wife is stolen away. Both magicians help in the war with Napoleon. Strange even goes to Portugal and visits the lines of Torres Vedras, an interesting coincidence with the last book I read. Strange makes temporary roads and rearranges the landscape to help Wellington; Napoleon is unable to find any magicians of his own. This may be because the Raven King, born in Faerie but a ruler in England, had a special relationship to that country.

That's about it for the plot. There is a tiny bit of action at the very end, but it is not satisfactory. The pleasure of the book is in the characterisation and the writing. The wit is so dry as to be barely there. I hate skimming, so I read all the long footnotes (shades of Pale Fire, but Nabokov is funnier) and can say that none of them are really worth it. I did appreciate the balanced characters -- never did obvious confrontations arise. I liked when the fairy tried to snatch away Strange and the mad king of England.

In the end it was just the right book to read on a trip. Not quite boring, but not so interesting that I stayed up all night to see what happened. I managed to give the weighty thing to our guide in Yangshuo when I was done.

Paul wrote: did you read Infinite Jest? that book wins on the "footnote front". Far more than pale fire (which is top notch book of course)

Susan wrote: I think I can safely add that to my "skip without regrets" list. I'm enjoying Salaam Brick Lane by Tarquin Hall. A history of the East End that is primarily sociological with interesting historical bits. By chance I read an article about the new Whitechapel "Idea Store" aka library in the Globe yesterday.