Sunday, 7 October 2007

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

A R.I.P. II Challenge Book Review

I lost track but I think I took almost a half year to finish this book. It was a good book to dip into whenever I had some time so I had not felt any urgency to complete it (Edit: I must qualify that I took 3-4 months reading just 3-4 chapters and it was the R.I.P II Challenge that spurred me to read at a faster pace). A large part of this is due to Susanna Clarke's writing. It encouraged that sort of slow reading: It is subtle. meandering and filled with little details which you can savour slowly. Overall, there seems to be very little overt tension in the story - there is no big bad evil dark enemy and the survival of the world does not depend on one clear single Hero. The mood of the book is very close to real-life, which means things are interconnected and the story is driven forward by choices and external events. Even though a Prophecy is pronounced early in the book, it is vague, does not feature largely as a plot driver and only becomes clearer nearer the end of the book.

The central driving force of the book is magic and how 2 English gentlemen vie with each other in the magical arena. But this magic is not like the dungeons and dragons sort of magic, Susanna Clarke does not spend alot of time trying to fancy it up. Instead when the magic is performed, she describes it in a very matter of fact manner. Set in England and some parts of Europe at early decades of the 1900s, it includes some fantasy woven into some real historical events. Due to the era it is set in, Susanna Clarke also conveys a lovely, proper Edwardian English tone. The themes explored in the book are wide-ranging: pride, human nature, the dangers of toying with things we don't understand, rigid social class prejudice, and a hint of, perhaps, the power of love.

The book is divided into 3 parts, which Susanna Clarke titles as Volumes: (1) Mr Norrell (2) Jonathan Strange and (3) John Uskglass. For the most part of volume 1 and 2, Susanna Clarke lays the groundwork and intricate tapestry of the lives of all the characters. I've said it before: The tone of these 2 volumes is like that of listening to an old person telling a story. I felt like I didn't really know what it all meant and what this old person is trying to tell me, but I still wanted to hear more because of all the interesting things that she was saying. There were many curious things, motivations and the path of the story are not always clear so it is not like most other stories where one reads it to find out how things will turn out next. It is a story that is not really completely driven by plot, if you know what I mean. It is only in volume 3 that the pace picks up and events begin to be embroidered clearly together into a larger tapestry.

While I took the most part of the time reading volume 1 and the first half of volume 2, I took only about a week to complete the second half of volume 2 and volume 3. This is partly because of my own reading habits and preferences. When the pace of a story starts to be driven more by plot, I tend to get caught up and want to know the outcome. Thus, I was driven to push aside everything else and I finally finished the book late last night.

I like books which have characters that I sympathise or identify with, but even though I did not get that from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I felt I knew and understood every character well enough so that I came away very satisfied with this book. Although there was alot going on in the book, none of it was superfluous. I was upset with the ending, which left something unresolved, and gave me a bitter sense of regret. However, I think it is a good ending, as it is not fairy tale perfect. I am left with a sense of wonder and also admiration for Susanna Clarke's mind! How did she manage to think of everything? It is an incredible book which I think will suit anyone who enjoys intricacies and details.