Like many Metro Atlanta residents, I am a commuter. My drive from home to work and back totals about an hour and a half, and that’s on good days. This long commute, while it takes away from time I could be spending with my family, has allowed me the opportunity to explore some books that I probably wouldn’t take the time to read if I weren’t able to listen to them. I found the Harry Potter series this way and made my way through the compendious Lord of the Rings trilogy (unabridged). Some people consider this “cheating” somehow, but I tend to see it as enjoying the lost art of good storytelling, and getting to enjoy books I otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to read.
My interest was piqued when I first heard of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a couple of years ago. As I browsed our audio book section recently, I came across a copy on CD and checked it out. At 26 discs, I knew this would be a big time commitment, but what more do I have to do when I’m edging up I-285? The story, like the Lord of the Rings, is paced and very descriptive, of people, places, and histories. Susanna Clarke’s prose and subject matter is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s dry wit and focus on English upper class concerns.
Clarke’s early-nineteenth-century England has a long history of magic. “Theoretical” magicians, or scholars of English magic, read and discuss and form societies of magicians. But magic left England hundreds of years before with the departure of the renowned but mysterious Raven King. Soon, a society of Yorkshire magicians discover that Mr. Norrell, a reclusive and fussy old bachelor in Yorkshire, possesses an extraordinary library of important books of magic, and the magicians bargain away their right to study magic to see an example of Mr. Norrell’s practical magic. Mr. Norrell’s astonishing demonstration begins the return of English magic, and soon, Mr. Norrell and his charming and adventurous pupil Jonathan Strange are known around the country as the only practicing magicians in England. They embark, together and then separately, to bring about the return of magic to England, and do so in fascinating and world-changing ways.
Simon Prebble’s reading is superb as he narrates the very long tale and subtly adds dimension to the story’s characters in his voicing of them. He also adds interest to the copious footnotes throughout the story, that I’m sure I would have glossed over if I were reading the print edition of the book. Overall, this compelling and mesmerizing tale is very much worth the time commitment involved.