Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke has to be one of my top-five favorite books of the last 10 years. Published in 2004, this novel presents an alternate history of the early 19th century, one in which two magicians restore magic to England. Strange and Norrell, the two magicians, use their magic to serve the English government, mostly in the Napoleonic Wars, and they are hailed as heroes. But their use of magic has led them to interact with faeries, and faeries have a moral code all their own, and it’s not clear that Strange and Norrell are ready to face down a faerie.
The story is much, much more complex than this simple outline reveals. Clarke has built a complete world whose borders expand beyond the covers of this book. And at nearly 800 pages, the book itself holds a lot. The story includes a large, Dickensian cast of characters with such evocative names as Drawlight, Childermass, Arabella Strange, Flora Greysteel, and Stephen Black. There are naval battles, a mad king, a never-ending ball, and the craziest cat lady I’ve ever encountered. It’s wonderful from beginning to end.
But that’s not nearly all. Clarke makes brilliant use of footnotes to build on the basic story. Many of the footnotes include hilarious, frightening, or merely charming tales from the world of English magic. Others reference books that various characters wrote about the events. Others merely comment on the action. It’s incredibly well done and makes the novel feel authentic, almost convincing the reader that there really were once faeries in England and that scholars have been arguing about them for centuries.
Before listening to the audiobook, I had already read this book twice. Bothtimes, I was completely swept away by it. It’s long, but I read it quickly. When a book is this absorbing, length is rarely an issue for me. There are some moments that are less exciting than others, but it’s never a slog.
The audiobook is well-done, with great narration by Simon Prebble, but it’s less effective than the print version, particularly, I think, for the first-time reader. The novel has so many twists that it’s hard to keep up with the story on audio; I’m not sure I could have had I not already read it twice. Also, the footnotes prove to be a problem in this format. Each footnote is inserted into the story where the footnote number appears in the text, and each has its own track. Although this is probably the best way to add these crucial supplements, it was hard to stay immersed in the story when the longer footnotes appeared. Often, when the narrator returned to the main text, I had forgotten where he had left off. Still, I’d rather have the footnotes than not, and I can’t think of a better way to add them to the audiobook.
Overall, I highly recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to anyone who loves books about magic, faeries, and England. It’s a treasure. But the audio version is perhaps best reserved for the most focused listeners, or for a second or third reading.