Monday, May 10, 2010


Title: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke

“Our question,” continued Mr Honeyfoot, “is why magic has fallen from its once-great state in our great nation. Our question is, sir, why is no more magic done in England?”

Mr Norrell’s small blue eyes grew harder and brighter and his lips tightened as if he were seeking to suppress a great and secret delight within him. It was as if, thought Mr Segundus, he had waited a long time for someone to ask him this question and had had his answer ready for years. Mr Norrell said, “I cannot help you with your question, sir, for I do not understand it. It is a wrong question, sir. Magic is not ended in England. I myself am quite a tolerable practical magician.”

Reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell made me happier than anything else has made me in quite some time. This is a wonderful book, full of wit and wisdom and magic. Magic! I was completely spell-bound by the world Susanna Clarke created, and tried to leave work as early as possible each day so I could get home and read further.

The story takes place in an alternate England during the Regency era (that is, the time of Jane Austen). On the Continent, Napoleon is doing his best to wage war upon the world. In England, magic has been waning since the disappearance of a mysterious figure known as the Raven King – and indeed, no one has performed any magic at all for hundreds of years. The only magicians left are scholar magicians, idle gentlemen who study history and theory in dusty books, but never do so much as wash a dirty dish with magic. They are fond of societies, however, and one day the York Society of Magicians is astonished to discover that one practical magician remains – a reclusive man named Mr Norrell who can make church stones sing.

After astounding the York magicians (and forcing them to disband the society) Mr Norrell moves to London, becomes a celebrity, and begins to assist England in the war against France. But another magician soon appears, one who is as different from Mr Norrell as possible. Jonathan Strange is a young gentleman of fortune, who was aimless in life until he decided to take up magic and found that he had quite a talent for it. He has a long nose, reddish hair, and a sarcastic expression. He is also more ambitious than Mr Norrell, and soon journeys to Spain to join Wellington’s campaign. But as Strange becomes more and more engrossed in magic and its power, he leaves himself vulnerable to the machinations of an unknown enemy, a mysterious gentleman with thistle-down hair…

My favorite aspects of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (aside from the humor) were the characters and the writing. Clarke assembles a large cast of politicians, magicians, ladies, fairies, and vagabonds, each and every one of which is precisely drawn and brought to life. Stephen Black, Arabella, John Segundus, and Childermass were some of my favorites, and they’re only a few of the creations that Clarke depicts so vividly. I don't think I'll be forgetting any of their names very soon.

For example, while the dashing and adventurous Jonathan Strange may be the primary focus of the plot, the characterization of Mr Norrell is Clarke’s masterpiece in miniature. He’s a fastidious, fussy, cowardly man, narrow-minded and sometimes cruel. (In other words, he’s Mr Woodhouse with a mean streak.) And yet … I couldn't despise him. Instead, he made me laugh. I don’t know how Clarke made me like such an weak character, but like Norrell I did, even when he was behaving in ways that were completely despicable.

As for the language, it’s superb: witty, vivid, and simple. There's something to chuckle over on every page. And despite the length of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Clarke is very spare when describing emotions, which is just the sort of writing I like best. In this she is quite English. She keeps the reader at arm’s length from her main characters, but one can always read their emotions from their words and actions. And some of these emotions are wrenching. The best example I can think of is how Clarke broke my heart in a footnote. (For anyone who has the hardcover version of the book, the footnote I speak of is found on page 284.) I never would have thought a book auction could have been so poignant.

Speaking of footnotes, Clarke uses them copiously. They provide little tidbits and stories about her magical England, and reveal a playful imagination overflowing with ideas. Impatient readers might be tempted to skip these digressions, but I would not. They contain some of the best parts of the book and usually connect in some intriguing fashion with the plot.

Finally, a brief word about the ending. It made me gnash my teeth and protest inside, but was absolutely the right conclusion for the book. Anything else would have somehow read false. Bravo to Clarke for pulling it off so effectively. It wasn’t depressing, but it was bittersweet, and I dropped a few tears (both of anger and sadness) on the final paragraphs. Clarke knows that there is no such thing as happily-ever-after, and that something lost cannot be regained. I would not have liked this ending as a teenager, but the adult I am today can appreciate its value.

I don’t think everyone will enjoy this book. Some people might have no patience with it, and I can see why. Much of the reading pleasure comes from the way Clarke combines the linguistic style of Jane Austen with the British fantasy tradition. Readers familiar with Austen will understand Clarke’s humor better than others, and readers who have read works such as Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” will have fun spotting all the influences in Clarke’s work. Several historical personages make cameos as well, and you’ll enjoy these more if you already have an idea of who the Duke of Wellington and King George III were.

In short, I think a little dash of cultural education is necessary to appreciate much of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Still, I believe the book is adventurous and clever enough to appeal to readers unfamiliar with this period of English history. I would advise everyone to try the first chapter. If it doesn’t make you chuckle at least once, give up: this book is not for you. This book is for people like me, and I’m so happy that Susanna Clarke wrote it.

p.s. – Some people have called Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell “Harry Potter for grownups.” Let me make one thing clear: Susanna Clarke is a far, far better writer than J. K. Rowling. You know how the Harry Potter books became both darker and yet more poorly written as they progressed? Well, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the type of book Rowling tried – and failed – to write in those last few volumes. It weaves strands of darkness into the plot while maintaining its witty tone, and manages to convey its characters’ deep emotions without resorting to SHOUTING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS!

p.p.s. – Sorry, that was a cheap shot at Rowling, but I couldn’t resist. Besides, it’s true. I like Harry Potter, but would have been happy if she’d stopped writing after book three.

p.p.p.s. -- I really want to do this as well.

posted by Elizabeth at 3:56 PM


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