Monday, 12 February 2018

Reading Women #3 – A book from a genre you haven’t read from earlier (historical fantasy fiction)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ­– Susanna Clarke

This book probably had a lot of paradoxical hype around it that I couldn’t help but put it on my reading list. On one hand people were raving about how great this book is, a book to match the wonders of magic of none other than Harry Potter, a book that despite being nearly 800 pages long still felt like it wasn’t enough. On the other hand, I heard almost an equal number of readers mentioning that it was a tedious read, a book that failed to deliver, a book which was dull and uninteresting.  It seemed to me that the truth lay somewhere in between.  

Be prepared – this is a pretty long review.

To begin with, this is  a story set in 19th c England, when the nation is perilously perched to fight the Napoleonic Wars and is on the threshold of Industrial Revolution. The Oxford-educated author, Susanna Clarke provides us with an interesting twist on the England of that time period by bring in a fantastical re-imagining of an England with magic and magicians in it. Now this would seem like the reason it was being compared to Harry Potter, but the likeness would stop right there (well, there is a prophesy in this one too, so that can be added to the HP similarity as well  :) ).

The book is divided into three volumes, in each one, a magician’s name begins the section : Mr. Norrell, Jonathan Strange and John Uskglass. Mr. Norrell, is a practical magician, and at the start of the story, would appear to be the only such magician in England, since all the rest are magicians only in theory. He ravenously collects and buys all the books on magic that  he can get his hands on and builds a most astounding library in his home. He intends to become the single greatest magician of all time. But, there is a prophesy, and in troops Mr. Strange. Though Mr. Norrell feels threatened by him at first, he becomes delighted when he observes the talent and prodigious skill possessed by Mr. Strange. Thus they embark on a student-tutor collaboration which proves to be of utmost help for England, especially during the wartime (yes, magic is used in the Napoleonic war in this historical account).

However Norrell and Strange have strongly differing views on magic and how it should be practiced, and this leads them to part ways, and so begins the start of many dreadful occurrences –and six hundred pages in, it starts getting extremely interesting!  I couldn’t put the book down from this moment.

There are many reasons why this book is truly one of a kind. I haven’t read anything like this up till now. These are couple of my insights into what I think was fascinating in this book:

  1.   Footnotes – it is extremely odd that a work of fiction uses footnotes. Those who are in academics or fields of research may come across it more often - but to be used in an international bestseller?  Many who read it, myself included, must have felt that it is a slow read and takes way too much time. This is a deliberate and clever piece of narrative technique which the author has employed (there is a hint of meta-fiction in this, but not going into that right now) . The footnotes tell extremely interesting stories and tales by themselves and we get a little lost in finding our way back into the story. Some footnotes are referenced in footnotes of other footnotes …see what I mean?  Incidentally Mr. Norrell puts a spell on his library so that one would get lost in it, be confounded . I felt the same trick was being used here with the footnotes. If you have the time, the additional notes provided are delightful and witty. But if you are looking for a quick read, this is going to be a deal-breaker. 
  2.  Duke Wellington and Lord Byron  - since it is historical fiction this book brings to life actual people in history and these two were most delightfully portrayed. Duke Wellington or rather Lord Wellington is the leading military leader and soldier of 19th c England and I enjoyed how he is portrayed as a stern, unflinchingly brave and thoroughly sensible officer. However, he always calls Jonathan Strange “Merlin” whenever he sees him, which I found to be quite funny. The portrayal of the notoriously famous Lord Byron was even more enjoyable : “….but he reflected that it probably could not be helped since both men were famous for quarreling: Strange with Norrell, and Byron with practically everybody.”  For students of literature these references will undoubtedly bring a smile to their faces.
  3. The villain – suffice to say the antagonist of this book is probably one of the most cold-hearted and eerily creepy villain I have come across.
  4. The narrator’s tone – the tone of the narratorial voice drips with wit and veiled social criticism whether it is targeted at a region or people or manners. In many ways it has a mingling of the styles of Jane Austen’s observation and Charles Dickens’ range of social classes. At times, even when the characters are in an extremely dreary or difficult situation, there are lines that can make you laugh or smile at the situation.  Now this is again something that can vary with personal tastes. Here is a short excerpt for consideration - “But the other Ministers considered that to employ a magician was one thing, novelists were quite another and they would not stoop to it."
  5. The climactic end – the conclusion came about quite brilliantly, with everything falling into place, and not least in the way I could have predicted it.

However like I said at the start, there is another side to this novel that needs to be addressed. These were a few areas in which this book falls short : 

  •  Lack of characters you could connect to – Other than Arabella Strange, I believe I could not  bring myself to like any character in this book. Norrell is too selfish, Strange is quite arrogant. To be honest, even with a host of characters both major and minor, we wouldn’t be invested in anything that might happen to them. This is a serious drawback in the enjoyment of the novel. 
  •  Cold romance – The only romantic love we see in the whole book is one between Strange and his wife Arabella. And even though it does give him purpose and a reliable source of support, the love he has for her is never given adequate voice.  No other character seems to show any likeness of love and loyalty to anyone else(Except maybe Flora towards the end). 
  •   The book is invariably more about the magicians than the magic they were performing.  And that is perhaps why it moves so slowly.

In the end, it is a highly inventive and sophisticated novel but lacks an emotional center which would prove to be its undoing. Would I recommend this? Well, if you are a fan of studying inventive writing, or innovative fiction, then it would be a fascinating one to study and read. But if you are looking at a fast-paced tale of magic, you will be disappointed. Well, at least that’s my humble opinion. Thanks for reading!  




Paula Vince said...

Hi Sne, I have to agree with your comments. Even though the ending was great, I wasn't that happy about the way she left Strange and Arabella's relationship. And weren't those footnotes like mazes? I have to admit the Gentleman with the Thistledown hair is probably the character who kept me reading, although I did have a soft spot for Childermass too.

Sne said...

Hey Paula,

I do think that the ending was a clever ploy too...they may be thinking of writing a second book to continue where this leaves least that's how I am considering it at the moment :) I did like Childermass, a misunderstood genius if there was one!

Sheree said...

Wow - thank you so much for sharing this review! Judging by it, this book is not at all what I would have otherwise expected. I love your highlights (footnotes?! my mind is still reeling!). The social criticism sounds right up my alley. Great work!

Sne said...

@Sheree - thank you for taking the time to read the review! It was my longest one till date, but there was so much to condense that it took a while - so glad to hear you enjoyed reading it! :)