Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: An Audiobook

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 £52For the sake of pity, don’t pay this price. Sign up for one of Audible’s monthly plans and get your audiobook more cheaply..

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.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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