For the past month, my chores, commutes – and those sleepy minutes before nightly unconsciousness – have been filled by the voice of Simon Prebble reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a novel published in spoken form by Audible. It is 32 hours in length, unabridged, and costs £52
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an alternative historical fantasy set in the early nineteenth century. It features two magicians – the eponymous – as they struggle to return the craft of magic to England, a country that has become disconnected from its magical heritage.
At root, the novel focuses on the relationship between the two magicians. It encompasses the war with Napoleon (fought and won with no little help from magic) and features several historical characters, including Lord Wellington, Byron and prime minister Lord Liverpool.
Darkness pervades this book, from the names of characters – Childermass, Greysteel, Drawlight – to the descriptions of smoggy London, foggy moors and moonlit Italy. It is self-consciously drawn, however, and I found the footnotes and general tone of irony to run counter to the sincerity needed for an identification with the characters.
Some things are lost in the translation from page to voice. For example, Clarke uses archaic spellings for choose/chuse, show/shew. But more is gained. Pebble is an accomplished narrator and has no difficulty in recreating myriad accents and tones.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is nothing less than impressive. I can’t help feel, though, that there is rather too much head about the book and too little heart. Clarke avoids cliché, but she does continually make safe choices in her story, and there is a sense of orchestration.