Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
by Susanna Clarke

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This came highly recommended to me–I mean, Neil Gaiman adores Susanna Clarke and this novel. That’s really all I need.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a very physical experience. I like to tuck books into my bag, but you can’t do this with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. At least, you can’t with the hardback. It’s 782 pages long, and it’s like carrying a child, to be honest. It’s a sensation I haven’t had since reading the Harry Potter series, which is quite fun.

I have described the plot as “Napoleonic wizards!” to everyone who asked, but it’s much more than that. Although, if the phrase “Napoleonic wizards” doesn’t interest you, we may have to stop seeing each other.

This novel is an alternate history fantasy about long defunct English magic’s revival in the 1800s with the arrival of two magicians–the reclusive and controlling Gilbert Norrell, and the dashing and arrogant Jonathan Strange.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell took Susanna Clarke ten years to write, and it shows–the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is obviously a work of love. The fantastical world is fully realized, but it never feels as though Ms. Clarke has thrown something in simply because she invented it. There’s a concreteness to the history she’s come with up that is thoroughly satisfying. I adore such complete worlds.

Clarke uses various footnotes to complete the reader’s knowledge of her fictional world, often telling stories, although there is one glaring case where the footnote could have been added onto the end of the chapter with no harm done. You’ll know it when you see it. Other times, the footnotes add to the bite of the witty writing. I love comedic footnotes. There’s one in Good Omens (by Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett) that makes me laugh out loud every time I read it–it involves the French shooting a fast food salesman on sight. It’s much funnier in context.

The tone is very dry, and, yes, very much like Jane Austen. The author enjoys taking subtle shots at some of her more ridiculous characters, and the novel is very witty at times. But when Clarke gets into the fussy magic Norrell performs and the later, wild magic Strange performs, the tone turns wondrous and terrifying. There’s also the wonderfully archaic touch of certain words Clarke uses–”chuse” instead of “choose”, “surprize” instead of “surprise”, and “Mr Norrell” instead of “Mr. Norrell”.

It takes a volume for the novel to hit its stride–I barely remember anything but the highlights of Volume I, which are Mr. Norrell’s chief acts of magic. Norrell is not a very interesting character to write about unless he’s interacting and interfering with other magicians, especially Strange. It’s a nice way to get used to Clarke’s subject and tone, but it can drag a bit.

Volume II is infinitely more fascinating, dealing with Strange’s services as a magician during the Napoleonic Wars, and I couldn’t read Volume III fast enough. While reading Volume I is hardly a chore, you’ll remember Volume II and III much, much more.

In such a large fantasy novel, the cast can be equally massive, but the novel manages to keep a center around the same circle, all tied together by Norrell and Strange. Chief among the rest of the cast are Lady Pole, a young woman raised by the dead by Norrell, Stephen Black, a black servant to Lady Pole’s husband, and Arabella Strange. The nominal villain of the piece is only known as “the gentleman with thistledown hair”, a fairy gentleman Norrell barters with to raise Lady Pole from the dead. This gentleman takes horrific delight in twisting the deal, and begins to ensnare others. It is only at the end of the novel that we realize exactly who this gentleman is, although he is never named. I really can’t say anything more without ruining the plot.

The high level of detail is awe inspiring. From the mundane aspects of nineteenth century  life to war to magic, everything is finely, but not overly, detailed. I can only imagine the amount of research it required! Strange’s travels in Venice are especially remarkable.

The plot, once Clarke gets down to it in Volume II, is thrilling and suspenseful. There are moments in the novel that are simply shocking, especially the end of Volume II.  The end of the novel is more satisfying than I thought it would have been, tying together seemingly unrelated story lines in marvelous ways.

My only criticism is Volume I, really, as it doesn’t quite stand up to the other two volumes. It’s pacing is slow, and, while charming, lacks the power and punch Clarke brings to the other two volumes. It’s not without its merits, but it feels lacking.

Bottom line: A thoroughly satisfying alternative history fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an awe inspiring example of meticulous world building. Of the three volumes that make it up, Volume I doesn’t stand up to the other two, but those are more than wonderful enough to make up for it.

I rented this book from the public library.

One thought on “Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

  1. Pingback: Booking Through Thursday: 2009 in Review « The Literary Omnivore

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