Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Strange Trilogy

Are you familiar with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell- the two most promising magicians of England? If you're not, it's well past time you got onboard. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2006) by Susanna Clarke is a most fascinating book. I read it when it first came out and it's one of those books that stay with you for a long time. And, you're going to need a long time because the book is long and complicated. Please don't take that as a criticism. I loved the book.

The story takes place in the nineteenth century and follows the career of a magician, Jonathan Strange, under the tutelage of Mr. Norrell. Along the way, you learn about wars the British are fighting and the history of the Raven King, ruler of the fairy world in England. In the end, it's a love story between man and woman and magic.  What makes this book so complicated is that it is written as if it is a history book and not a novel. The footnotes can go on for several pages and go off in  a variety of tangents. Don't try to skip them though, they are amazing. I don't know how Clarke wrote this. She must be in an insane asylum by now.

Clarke immediately followed up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell with a book of tales called The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories that continues the history of fairies in England. Again, written as a book of literary criticism, Clarke takes us back into the fairy world. The first of the ten short stories concerns Jonathan Strange and gives us a side tale of his adventures. This book can be read in a few sittings and might be a good introduction if you're timid about tackling the tome of Strange & Norrell.

For the very curious, but extremely reticent about starting a large novel right now, I highly recommend the BBC tv miniseries of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In just seven episodes, the production captures the essence of the novel beautifully. Yes, you lose some of the history, but I thought what remained was enchanting. I loved the casting, costumes, and set design.  Most significantly, it gave me the urge to reread Clarke's book.

The BBC production was made in 2015, but is finally available in the U.S. on Netflix. The BBC website for the show has several extra features such as a downloadable Tarot deck.  If you're curious or already a fan, don't miss this production.

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