Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Bloomsbury, September, 2004.
Hardcover, 800 pages.
"Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic." So begins Susanna Clarke's truly amazing novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is part comedy of manners, part fantasy, part alternate history SF, part historical novel, and part drawing room farce. It is not surprising that the publisher is Bloomsbury; British publishers are much more likely to take a look at a mixed-genre novel (See, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fford, for example.) American publishers tend to like their genres sorted into tidy boxes. In any event, it is a wonder and a joy that such a book made its way into the mainstream.
In 1806 alternative history England, magic is accepted as real, although since the disappearance of the Raven King, no one really practices magic. Mostly, it is a theoretical study of the craft in which the magicians engage -- that is, except for the exceedingly vain and eccentric recluse, Mr. Norrell, of whom it was later said, "He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him." When Mr. Norrell reveals to the world that he can, indeed, actually do magic (he makes the statues in York Cathedral come to life, whereupon they began to sing, talk and occasionally berate the audience) he becomes the toast of the ton and the delight of the government, which is busy waging war against the much-reviled French. Norrell eventually agrees to take on as his apprentice the handsome and talented magician, Jonathan Strange, who is of great assistance to General Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars. But the younger assistant chafes at Norrell's restrictions, and sets out to single-handedly recreate the Golden Age of English magic with the help of a one very selfish, naughty Faerie who has his own agenda.
Written with a dry, very British sense of humor, the narrator delivers the history with an intimate, confiding, tongue in cheek tone which works very well indeed. One buys into the fictive dream and, after about 30 pages or so, historical fact and fiction have merged. In fact, Ms.Clarke's world is so vividly-imagined that it seems quite real. This impression is reinforced by the numerous, droll, detailed footnotes which assist those who have forgotten some of the more arcane or obscure magical historical tidbits.
The book has been called Harry Potter for adults, and in the fact that it deals with magic and has a sly humor behind the prose, that is somewhat true. But Ms. Clarke's entertaining style and worldview call to mind more the work of Neil Gaiman and P.G. Wodehouse than of J.K. Rowling. Ms. Clarke's words are accompanied by the marvelous pen and ink drawings of Portia Rosenberg. Susanna Clarke has produced an immense book, both in sheer heft and in terms of literary value. It is an extraordinary achievement.
--Claire E. White
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is available for purchase on Amazon.com
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This review was published in the September-October, 2004 of The Internet Writing Journal.
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