This review first appeared at SFFaudio.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
By Susanna Clarke; Read by Simon Prebble
32 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / England /
Mr. Norrell is a fusty but ambitious scholar from the Yorkshire countryside. He is also the first practical magician in hundreds of years. What better way to demonstrate his revival of British magic than to change the course of the Napoleonic wars? Jonathan Strange discovers, to his dismay, that he is a natural magician. Because he “feels” his magic rather than depending on books as Mr. Norrell does, they wind up representing two distinctly different ways of doing British magic. Clarke deliberately used a style that calls to mind Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and thus transports the reader to a time gone by when spelling varied, footnotes could be long and involved, manners were paramount, and when it is possible to believe in such a thing as British magic.
I tried this book several times but either wasn’t in the right mood or was expecting something different. Hannah read it, loved it, shoved it on my nightstand, and nagged me about it (with that hopeful, wistful, little puppy look that a mom can’t say no to…). Once I began reading I couldn’t understand why I didn’t warm to it before … the writing is charmingly understated and amusing. Set in England during the Napoleonic war, it is about magic, English practitioners of magic, books about magic, and the Raven King.
However, once I was well into the book I got bogged down with the many wayside visits and long footnotes that added atmosphere but didn’t seem to advance the story. That is when I picked up the audio book from the library. Once I was listening, I began enjoying it immensely more than before. I think I do better with meandering books when on audio for some reason. Eventually I almost became addicted and couldn’t stop listening.
At the end the book suddenly picked up the pace with one thing happening after another. It ended in an unexpected way with some story lines being firmly concluded while others were left to drift off. Usually this would bother me but, in a sense, it was very true to real life, which makes me reflect upon the fact that the way the story was told was very like having someone tell it to you in person. They take little byways of explanation that may not have too much to do with the story and then come back to the point. In listening to the book this made for a delightful and somehow restful story.
This was wonderfully narrated by Simon Prebble whose dulcet tones and perfect pacing helped make the long sentences easily understood and who emphasized the humorous bits without overdoing it. There is no doubt that his narration is the key element that not only got me to the end of the book, but actually left me sad when it ended. Recommended but only for those who do not object to long, meandering stories with a lot of footnotes.