Friday, October 16, 2009

An Audio Book for a Very, Very, Very Long Car Ride

Earlier this week, I finished listening to the only audio book I'd listened to since August. It's not that I hadn't been listening to audio books much in that time. It was that this one was very, very, very, very long. 26 discs long, to be precise, and 32 hours of reading.

The book was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, originally published in 2004. I bought it soon after it came out, but it had been sitting on my shelf, unread, for almost 5 years. Then, this summer, I took it out. I had a bout of flu in July, right after my summer break started (what timing), and during the first week, when I wasn't good for much of anything, I re-read the whole Harry Potter series, needing something both familiar and engaging. (It totally holds up when read as one very long story. I would read it that way again, assuming another block of time that hopefully doesn't involve the flu--it certainly helped with the not remembering many of the pertinent details that happened while waiting two years for the next book.)

But when I was done with Harry, I still was in the mood for something long and engaging and having to do with magic, and there was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on my shelf. I took it out and read a chapter, then had an AHA moment when I realized it would probably be a good book to listen to as an audio book. This was confirmed when I went to the library and happened to run into Darnell, husband of my friend Leanna. He saw the audiobook in my hands and asked if I were going to listen to it. I said I was. I asked if he knew about it. He said he'd listened to it. I asked if he liked it. He paused for a moment, and then said, slowly, "I loved it." He went on to say that just seeing it in my hands made him want to listen to it again. This impressed me, especially given the sheer length of it. When I saw Leanna a few weeks later, it turns out that soon thereafter, Darnell had foisted the book upon her over a long weekend, and she had read it as well. (We both appreciated the coincidence, since we could then talk about it with the details still fresh. Although because Leanna had read it over one long weekend, and I was listening over the course of several months, it meant that she had finished while I had just come to the part, about halfway through, when Jonathan Strange had dabbled in black magic while in Portugal serving as Lord Wellington's personal magician.)

Jonathan Strange is, as I suspected, a very good book to listen to, and Simon Prebble is an excellent narrator. Listening to it is something of a commitment. It is, as I may have mentioned, long. It meanders. And for the first several hundred pages, it's kind of hard to see where it's going, given the slow pace, the digressions, the footnotes. Yes, there are footnotes. I've read several reviews saying that this book wouldn't work on tape for first time readers because of the footnotes, but I disagree. They seem a bit of a distraction, at first, but as the story progresses, they make more and more sense and are often both interesting and entertaining in their own right. (I did consult the paper copy of my book several times to double check and re-read things, but I was tempted to read ahead, and I wanted to let Simon Prebble finish reading, so I had to restrain myself.)

But what is the book about, you might ask. It's a historical novel and a magical novel, or at least a novel with magic in it, and a novel about friendship and rivalry. It's also a very well written novel. It's set in the first part of the 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars (the same time period of my beloved Patrick O'Brian novels). Magic, which had once flourished in England, is no longer practiced but only discussed (at length) by "theoretical magicians." And then the first practical magician in memory appears, fussy and selfish Gilbert Norrell who can enchant the statues in York Cathedral so that they can talk and conjure up ships made of rain to form a blockade against the French. Then, a quarter of the way into book, appears Jonathan Strange, young, brash and bold, who has no intention of becoming a magician until a tramp sleeping under a hedge tells him it is his destiny. Strange becomes Norrell's pupil and friend and eventually his rival and enemy. There are other main characters--noble Stephen Black, butler to politician Sir Walter Pole, a "nameless slave" and, eventually, a king; Norrell's mysterious and compelling servant Childermass; and especially the Faerie king, known only as "The Man With the Thistledown Hair," summoned by Norrell to assist in raising Sir Walter's fiancee from the dead, whose role becomes more evident--and frightening--as the book progresses. There is also one character whose presence hovers throughout the book, but whom we only catch a glimpse of towards the very end--John Uskglass, the Raven King, whose magic ruled England for centuries, the man whom Norrell fears and Strange admires to the point of obsession.

This is not a book with many women characters, unfortunately. There is Lady Pole, the first victim of the Man With the Thistledown Hair, whom we only see glimpses of in her natural and unenchanted state, and Arabella Strange, Jonathan's wife, who is at risk of becoming another. I wish there were more. And it's interesting to me that neither Strange or Norrell is particularly sympathetic. As a result, this isn't an emotionally demanding book, although the last two hundred pages are gripping, the plot racing ahead and much more being at stake.

It's not a perfect book, though few are. It could be shorter and tighter, without losing anything; it could perhaps not meander quite as much. But it is a testament to Susanna Clarke and Simon Prebble that I listened to it patiently and with great enjoyment, through car trips to New Hampshire and Cape Cod and Boston, to and from work, in my kitchen while chopping onions, at the gym while doing leg presses, day after day, week after week, I listened. And when it was over, I was a little bit sad, and I wondered, as others of Susanna Clarke's fans have been wondering for the past 5 years, when she's going to write a sequel.

1 comment:

Clare Dudman said...

What a great review! You conveyed to me exactly what you felt when reading this book and made me want to read it too.

I don't think I shall at the moment (because of the length). I am in the middle of a project requiring much research so I have to do that first - but shall definitely read this one on audio.

I found it particularly interesting to hear what you thought about the footnotes - like you I thought they wouldn't work, but now can understand that, yes, they might...