Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the debut novel by Susanna Clarke, and what a triumph it is!  It's an 850-page behemoth that so completely nails the characters, the pacing and the plot it never grows old.  I've described it as a psuedo-historical Harry Potter for adults, meets Jane Austen, meets Infinite Jest, with a little The Master and Margarita thrown in for good measure.  You're probably asking yourself something along the lines of, "How does that possibly make any sense?"  Well, I will tell you.

It's about magic (this is the Potter part).  And it's set in the early 1800s (Austen, with "surprize" and "chuse" and other old-fashioned English-isms).  And there are lots and lots of footnotes - some rather lengthy - citing all these made-up historical texts (about magic) (David Foster Wallace, of course).  And there's a supernatural dude (in this case, a fairy) who totally wreaks havoc on things (Master and Margarita). 

Gilbert Norrell believes himself to be the only practicing magician left in England.  In fact, he has taken great pains to ensure this continues to be true, buying up all the magical texts he can find and squiring them away in his library and discouraging non-practicing (or "theoretical") magicians from continuing to call themselves such.  When he determines the time is right, he leaves his York estate to move to London where he offers his magical skills to assist England in its war with Napoleoon, this in an effort to bring magic back to England.

Meanwhile and elsewhere in England, the young man Jonathan Strange has been thoroughly unable to find a profession with which he can stick for more than a short period of time.  A bizarre encounter with a seemingly insane vagrant leads him to believe he is the second of England's magicians, and he pursues the profession with elan.  He seeks out Norrell, convinces the older man to take him as his apprentice and begins his formal magical education.

Mayhem is introduced into the book in the form of the gentleman with thistle-down hair, a fairy who develops strong and unexplained attachments with a couple of English humans, and despises anyone who gets in the way of his goals... the two English magicians in particular.

The book is imaginative, sarcastic and funny, impeccably written and one of the greatest reading pleasures I've enjoyed in years.  I could not recommend it highly enough, and I only hope I didn't spoil anything by my vague description above.  Do yourself a favor and read this book.

Next up: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize and a gift from my brother.  I'm also reading the manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hiyao Miyazaki, the creative genius behind Spirited Away and other wonderful films.

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