2 March 2011
7. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a bit of an epic that spans decades and includes many characters. It has a Dickensian feel to it at times, with characters with names such as Honeyfoot and Drawlight featuring. It is set in an alternate version of England in the early 19th century. England is much as we know it but with an added magical history. In Clarke’s world, magic was a defining part of English history and up until a few centuries ago England was the home of several prominent magicians and the entire north of England was ruled by the Raven King, the greatest magician of English history. However, as we join the story there are no practical magicians left and people only study magic theoretically.
We are then introduced first to Mr. Norrell, and then to his future pupil and rival, Jonathan Strange. Norrell and Strange are polar opposites in terms of character but become the two great practical magicians of the age and work to bring about the revival of English magic. Working against this is the fact that Norrell wishes to be wholly in control of this and not to allow any others to practice magic, going to great lengths to prevent others from studying practical magic. Norrell is a shrewish old man who is easy to revile and we spend most of the novel knowing about something he has done and wanting it to be revealed. The book really ratches up the tension in the last third and I was reading it for long stretches at a time wanting to find out what was happening.
It is almost impossible to summarise the plot of such a novel as it covers so much time and encompasses a great variety of characters, including a malevolant fairy, a bewitched young gentlewoman, the Duke of Wellington and a mysterious street magician covered in blue markings.
I found myself totally engrossed in the story. It is both literary and engaging. Clarke has that unique blend of wonderful writing and enticing plot. The writing is adept with fascinating footnotes explaining a magical history that creates a seamless history and background to our story. The characters are cleverly and realistically written. It is very much in the realms of fantasy but presented as though magic and spells were commonplace.
I have heard quite a variety of opinions of this book, with criticisms ranging from it being boring to self-indulgent and I do think that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell suits quite a specific taste. If you enjoy involving, complex books such as The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel I would give this engaging and interesting novel a go. It’s an investment in terms of time and concentration but in my opinion, it definitely pays off.