Friday, May 6, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Book)

Theoretical, Practical, & Street Magicians. Fairies. Prophecies. Enchantment. Kings. Servants. Rogues. Napoleon.

The winner of the 2005 Hugo and British Fantasy Society awards, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, is a (somewhat) grown-up fairy tale. Although it is a rather long book, the wry humor of the narration and the plot twists and turns make it a fun read.

In the early 1800s, when the people of England think magic is a thing of the past, Mr. Norrell presents himself as a practicing magician. Early on in the story he brings back a woman from the dead, partially as a way of proving his abilities. Unfortunately he uses the services of a fairy, which leads to some unexpected and unpleasant consequences as the story unfolds. Norrell soon finds that he is not the only practicing magician. The young man Jonathan Strange also decides to take up magic and finds that he is quite good at it. Norrell is proud and bases everything on information from his huge library of books, which he tries to keep from aspiring magicians. Strange is much more free and experiential. Their relationship threads its way throughout the book. At different times within the story they are student and teacher, rivals, friends, and colleagues. Also winding its way throughout the book is a prophecy given by a supposed huckster and street magician foretelling the fates of the magicians and a “nameless slave.”

While Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is primarily good entertainment, Clarke is also mindful of the issues of classism, racism, and sexism, which were even more prevalent in the early 1800s. Clarke also seems to allude to other ideas, using magic as a metaphor. In one exchange Arabella, Strange’s wife tells him, “I thought you meant to be a magician not an explorer!” Strange answers, “It is the same thing. An explorer cannot stay at home reading maps other men have made. A magician cannot increase the stock of magic by reading other men’s books.” In my opinion, the world needs more well-read explorers.

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