Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a remarkable work of erudite storytelling. And if that sounds slightly unappealing for those of you reading this, then perhaps it may not be the book for you. This does not mean that it isn’t any good, but that the goodness in this story may be too labored for you to have the patience to stick around for. Clocking in at more than 800 pages in my paperback version, this is a book which demands a certain level of emotional investment and commitment.
The story takes place in the early nineteenth century, when the Napoleonic wars are raging and the English government is looking for any means to give them an advantage in the battles being fought. Meanwhile, a hitherto reclusive scholar wants to bring the dying art of practical English magic back into the forefront of his country’s consciousness. Scoffing at the various practitioners of ‘theoretical magic’ who have abounded in England in the past century or two, he performs certain feats of astonishing magic, including raising up a certain prominent young woman from the dead, to capture the attention of the luminaries in the establishment as well as the common folk. But to make this come to pass he had to summon up a certain gentleman with thistledown hair, a faerie, who creates quite a bit of havoc in the remainder of the novel for the protagonists to deal with. But, the immediate effect is pleasing to Mr. Norrell. The government sits up and commissions him for various feats of magic to help defeat their enemies.
Soon (well, around a couple of hundred pages in) Norrell is both excited and apprehensive to take on a promising young student, Jonathan Strange. Their regard for each other is mostly excellent and full of respect and for the reclusive Norrell especially, a balm for the usual solitude he prefers in his vast library (where he houses an immense wealth of magical knowledge that he is scarce known to share). But Strange is a more personable magician than Norrell and has also found domestic bliss with his wife, Arabella. He also has more radical ideas about how they should be bringing about the restoration of English magic as compared to the more conservative opinions of Mr. Norrell, who would much rather prefer a more bookish approach to things. Norrell would also much rather diminish all attempts to resurrect a certain Raven King, who was known as the greatest magician king ever on English shores and who has been missing for the last few centuries. Strange though would prefer to summon him back. Strange is called on to attend to the military on continental Europe and achieves fame and acclaim for his feats there helping the soldiers. Norrell meanwhile secludes himself in his London home with a couple of hanger-ons, of increasingly desperate wickedness, on whom he comes to rely on evermore. But when the faerie king entices and influences a few people close to them, including a certain servant, darkness threatens to engulf Strange’s world and he becomes, in the eyes of most, increasingly erratic and unhinged. A return to England and rekindling his partnership with Norrell may be the only way they can resist the forces of darkness and bring back the ones they love.
It’s a fantasy of course, but the approach Susanna Clarke takes towards the storytelling is what could make or break it for the potential reader. It takes the form more of an alternate reality historical account rather than the usual fast paced plot driven approach we come to expect from the genre. There are parts of it which reminded me of Tolkien’s approach, what with the extensive footnotes referring to various historical facts related to magic and its practitioners and the careful, languorous approach to character and scene building. There have been reviewers who have compared her style to that of Austen and Dickens too. I found the technique fascinating if not entirely captivating. It’s obvious she has done a humongous amount of research and knows the period well. The references and extensive footnotes could be considered as a hindrance to the reader’s flow, but on retrospect I found some of these to be extremely well done and it’s remarkable how she has constructed a parallel reality with magic and magicians in this history, almost as if it feels like these were just real people in the annals of history doing their jobs which happened to involve magic.
But it cannot be denied that there were times during this huge tome that I found it a chore to continue. And while it kept me hooked enough to wade through its immensity, I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers would have given up on it. The docu-fictional approach is interesting but can make things seem a bit too dreary at times, despite the many interesting events happening on the page.
The characters of Norrell and Strange though are fascinatingly, realistically drawn and we get pulled into their struggles and triumphs, mainly so because a lot of their traits and behaviors are believable. There is also a rich set of supporting characters who hold up the main story well and get their own space. I’ve heard a well-done miniseries has been made on this for TV and I would love to check how this has translated to screen. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that on its publication, back in 2004, this was a major worldwide bestseller proving that people still do appreciate a huge old-fashioned story. Overall, I would recommend this book to most serious readers of literary fiction.
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