if there was ever a book I truly don’t know what to say about, it’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Don’t get me wrong—I adored it. I’ve recommended it to dozens of my friends. But not all of them. I don’t even recommend it to all of my friends who like fantasy, or mythic fiction, or British drawing room comedies of manners.
It’s a massive book, something like 400,000 thousand words (that’s a guess; I haven’t actually counted them). Nonetheless, I found myself enchanted from page one. Magic and sly witticisms were so thick I had to swat them away like flies, and the oh-so-English narrative delighted me. The characters are engaging and well-drawn, and the period voice, complete with obsolete spellings and elaborate, fanciful footnotes (don’t dare skip them!) delighted me. All the same, when I was nearly halfway through, I found myself still wondering when the actual story was going to get started. It had been going all along, but Ms. Clarke, like any good magician, had distracted my attention. Tricky rascal.
Clarke has crossed a fantasy mythology as complex as those of Tolkien himself, or very nearly so, and coupled it with the gaslit, fog-shrouded Britain of Dickens or Jane Austin. It’s a book-lover’s book, not something for the causal beach reader. Mr. Norrell, magician, is out to restore magic to Britain in the age of Napoleon. In Clarke’s Britain, gentlemen scholars pore over the magical history of their island, following tantalizing hints dominated by the mysterious Raven King, who long ago mastered enchantments from the lands of Faerie.
The study of the gentlemen scholars is only theoretical, of course—until Mr. Norrell reveals that he is capable of producing actual magic and becomes the toast of London society. Meanwhile, one Jonathan Strange, an impetuous young aristocrat, decides that he, too, will follow the practical study, and finds surprising success quickly.The two magicians irritate one another equally, but Strange becomes Mr. Norrell’s first student. Soon enough, the British government shows interest in their budding work. Mr. Strange, in fact, serves with Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars, but after finds himself unable to accept Mr. Norrell’s rather restrictive views on magic’s proper place. And all of that is almost incidental to the main story, teeming just below the surface. Still with me?In Susanna Clarke’s England, magic is a believably complex and almost tedious labor. Her England is a strange (no pun intended) land of omens and miracles, where every incident or object may harbor secret meaning. Through it all, signs indicate that the Raven King may return, and more than one character is more than what they seem. It’s a dense, slow, fascinating read. In many ways, it’s like rich food. It’s delicious, but you don’t want too much at once. It’s a feast to savor slowly. It’s not for everyone. All the same, it’s a book that absolutely deserves a wider audience. There are wonders here. We need more books like this.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not a new book. I’m reviewing now not because I’ve just reread it (although I due, as soon as my to-be-read stack grows slightly less ponderous) or anything like that, but because I have recently found myself in possession of an extra hardcover first edition that needs a good home. Atlanta friends, I’ll trade it to you for a beer. Or heck, you can have it free for nothin’. Just let me know.
In the meantime, please use one of the links to help spread the word? I’d appreciate it.