Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: If you have a free, lazy weekend and like atmospheric fantasy with humans of this world and fairies, read it: you might enjoy it and it might leave you with some memorable images. But don't expect an epic sweep, a moral message or breathtaking action.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 1024 Date: September 2005
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747579885

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Neil Gaiman said, apparently, that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years. That is possible, though it does seem extremely generous, even if by English we take 'coming from England' rather than 'written in the English language' and even if we use fairly narrow definition of 'the fantastic'.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is, however, an unquestionably impressive debut. It's a well-written, cleverly designed pastiche of an early 19th century novel, with a clear ascendancy in Jane Austen and a bit of Charles Dickens too, and sharing Austen's combination of ironic detachment and gentle empathy towards the characters. Complete with lengthy digressions (mercifully relegated to footnotes), noticeable archaisms in spelling ('chuse') and an eloquent narrator appearing from time to time on the surface of the story in order to speak directly to the reader, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is indeed all of its time. Its time, being, obviously, the time the action takes place rather than the time it was actually written.

The novel is both a fantasy and an alternative history: it is set in our world, not in some parallel Faerie nor never-heard-of Neverland, but in England. At the first glance it seems to be the England we know or at least have heard of. Subsequently, we learn that it used to be divided into the Southern and the Northern part, and the latter had been ruled for 300 years by the Raven King. The Raven King - the least seen and the most felt character in the novel - is John Uskglass, the greatest English magician, brought up in Faerie and come back to England to rule its Northern half (as well as a kingdom in Faerie and one on the borders of Hell) from Newcastle.

At the time the story takes place (1807-1817) all that is ancient history. England is now ruled, as it was in our version of events, by the mad King George, while the Duke of Wellington is fighting Napoleon. Interest in magic still exists but the magicians of modern era are, erm... theoretical magicians. They study history of magic and don't even try to perform any. Magic is, as everybody knows, gone from England. Or so it seems until the mysterious Mr Norrell makes the stone figures of the York Minster walk and speak. Mr Norrell eventually moves from his Yorkshire obscurity to London, where he enters the government service. He is the greatest (and the only) magician of the age - at least until Jonathan Strange appears, to become his pupil and, eventually, his apostate and rival.

The book is huge, but it flows well, following the two magicians as well as incorporating side stories of all kinds concerning individuals somehow enmeshed in the magicians' actions, notably a certain lady Pole brought to life from death at the beginning of Mr Norrell's public career and several other humans enchanted by inhabitants of Faerie.

The concept of the book is interesting, the research impressive and the style accomplished. And yet, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell fails to delight. First and foremost it is decidedly too long: at over 780 pages the story has neither sufficient breadth nor depth to fill all that space. It is a remarkable achievement of the author that she manages to sustain enough interest in the reader to persevere till the end: there is not enough epic action nor intellectual musings and virtually no character development to justify plodding on, but on the reader plods, for some reason.

The style, as I said before, is definitely reminiscent of the novels of the time. This makes it a very clever book but also a less accessible one - not because the writing is difficult, but because it seems cold. What worked for the alien and mythical settings of Tolkien's epic doesn't, somehow, work for the rational and fairly domesticated milieu of [ Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The more dramatic and otherworldly the novel becomes, the less alienating the effect of the antiquated style is and the more appropriate it becomes.

The settings are rendered well: especially the English countryside and Venice. For some reason Regency London, in which a lot of the story takes place, is not so evocatively described. Perhaps because Venice looks now roughly as it looked then, while London has changed rather dramatically.

Imagery pertaining to magic is indeed one of the achievements of the book: warship illusions made from rain, King's Highway behind the mirrors, bleak enchanted moors and whirling columns of perpetual darkness stay with the reader for a long time afterwards and are probably the best thing in the novel altogether.

The historical research looks pretty good to me: I am not very knowledgeable about the Napoleonic wars but from what I know about for example the build up to Waterloo it seems to be described very accurately. The interweaving of the historical detail with the magical intervention is wonderfully seamless.

The bibliography and footnotes referencing (fictional) works of magic is extremely detailed. I don't know how many readers will actually devote much attention to them at first reading, but they are there and the fans of the book will undoubtedly go back to savour and immerse themselves in that world.

The characters are perhaps one of the main problems of the novel: not one of them seems particularly well developed, they are drawn with a few strokes of charcoal each. Norrell is paranoid, cautious and introverted while Strange is whimsical, sociable and capable of great drama. There are many more, from enchanted black butler Stephen to Mr Norrell's rather mysterious servant and factotum Childermass, but they all remain a tantalizing possibility - which is a disappointment, as surely, a book of 800 pages should allow for some character development.

Is there an underlying theme or message, then? The main conflict is between two kinds of magic, one that is restrained, civilized and rational and the other which is wild, natural (as sky, as trees, as fairies) and - literally - mad. It's the old and important argument between the Classical and the Romantic, between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, but - somehow - it fails to become anything else but a convenient plot device, a pivot for the construction of the novel rather then the reason to write it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is broad and shimmeringly fluent, but ultimately an empty exercise. There is everything there: magic, prophecies, fairies, other worlds hidden behind mirrors, deep love that reaches beyond the grave, politics and history, gentle humour and rather terrifyingly gothic madness, even a noticeable cameo by Lord Byron. But something is missing. This kind of book needs to engage emotions and - at least for me - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell failed to do so. I admired it a lot, I liked the concept which seemed very original, and I will remember many inspired images. But at the end of the day I didn't care much.

I am giving Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell three and half stars. It's a fluent, well written and well imagined book but lacks character development and emotional pull, and too long by at least 200 pages. However, if there is a sequel, I will read it. Probably.

You might enjoy The Vanishing by Sophia Tobin, although we had our reservations.

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