The following is a review of the audio-book edition of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, narrated by Simon Prebble and first released in December 2004.
English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.
But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr. Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England’s magical past and regained some of the powers of England’s magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.
All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative, the very opposite of Mr. Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington’s army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr. Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different…
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is arguably one of the finest fantasy books ever written. This audio telling of Susanna Clarke’s book is undeniably the best that I have listened to so far.
It is a BIG book. It requires a good thirty-two hours of listening and, like the book itself, requires commitment. Those who do commit will be amply rewarded with a story that is performed by the admirable Mr Simon Prebble. As the narrative moves from Yorkshire to London, from France to Venice, Prebble seamlessly adopts authentic accents for both the male and female characters. No bigger compliment can be paid other than saying that the recording sounds like it has been performed by a cast of unique performers. Norrell’s timidity; Strange’s arrogance; the man with thistle-down hair’s inherent malicious mischief; Lady Pole’s indifference; Drawlight’s sycophancy; Lacell’s mean spiritedness – all these character traits are brought to life by the narrator’s voice.
This audiobook adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was shortlisted for Audible’s Listen of the Year, 2006 and has been one of the top ten downloaded fantasy since its release.
We spoke to Simon Prebble regarding the recording of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell:
Fantasy Book Review: The total reading of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is over 32 hours. How daunting is it to work on a project of this size, containing so many different characters and featuring such extensive footnotes?
Simon Prebble: Don’t remind me! At an average ratio of two hours in the studio for each hour recorded it was a long concentrated time behind the microphone… so the key to narrating such a massive book is prepping and pacing. Your initial reading of the book is preparation, in order to get the overall shape and mood, to map the plot, and especially to find the voices of the characters. To do that, like a lot of narrators, I visualise them (often using various character actors from the TV or the movies) to give me a mental cue when reading. Unlike a lot of narrators, I rarely mark up my scripts, but when recording ‘Strange and Norrell’ there were so many characters that to avoid getting lost I had to make notes… but not footnotes! This incidentally was an area that I had strong feelings about. I believe that the numerous footnotes in the book should have been read either on a separate track on the CD or at least at the end of the sentence in which they appeared… not in the middle of the sentence. With some of those faux footnotes over several pages long it seemed absurd to me to go back to the sentence from which they sprang. My producer disagreed. I feel somewhat vindicated however since several reviewers remarked on the odd method. With regards to pacing… when you are recording day after day, eight hours at a stretch, you need to physically as well as mentally pace yourself, so there is a consistency of energy, and comprehension, and especially characterisation.”
“Notwithstanding our ‘creative differences’ on the footnotes, my producer was a godsend on this project. He may have held the reins, so to speak, but he let me ride with it. We had a mutual trust that was essential in such a large project, and I remember saying to him very early on in the recording that this book and the recording was something quite unique. It certainly seems to have turned out that way… even though Susanna Clarke says that, when writing it, she heard a woman’s voice! However, from what I can gather from her website she was quite happy with my interpretation.”
This is one of – if not – the best fantasy audio-book available – highly recommended.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (unabridged) by Susanna Clarke
Narrated by Simon Prebble
Length: 32 hours, 36 minutes
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc