I’ve read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell before. I was on tour, riding the Greyhound and had to fit my life into 2 bags. I bought the book at a stop on a whim and completely forgot that this 900 plus page tome was probably not going to fit well in my already tightly packed bags. I got about 50 pages in before it was time to load up for the next show. I mailed clothes back home so I could make this book fit. It was that damned good.
Roughly a year later, I jumped at the chance to reread it. It’s every bit as good as I remember it. It’s a novel lovers novel. It’s a history lovers history. It’s Harry Potter, without the creepiness that goes along with hanging out in the kids section at your local bookstore.
Yes. It’s Harry Potter for adults. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell traces the return of magic to England during the Victorian age through two magicians; Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell (what a coincidence!). Magic has a strong, storied and very real presence in Englands (alternate) history. Once a powerful and rather common force in England, the reader finds that it has dwindled over the years eventually falling into the realm of purely theoretical. Magicians gather and discuss magical history and the implications of magical spells and so on but no one actually practices magic. Well, no one except Mr Norrell who, through a short set of circumstances, finds himself dared by a society of magicians to prove that he is indeed a “practical” magician. Which he does.
Clarke goes on to create a perfectly realized alternate history and universe. Magic is alive and we get to see its resurrection first hand. From the libraries of England to the battlefield of Waterloo, the reader watches as the magicians go from being skeptically accepted, to national heroes and all the ups and downs that follow. She provides many a literary foil by supplying probably the most detailed, nuanced and exhaustive list of supporting characters. The detailed paid to individuals who may only appear for a few chapters makes it easy to become easily lost in Clarkes world.
Throughout the story, readers are treated to the history of English magic via extensive footnotes. For the nerdy types, the details are frustratingly sparse and very far between. But there’s enough there to titillate all sorts of imaginings and thankfully leaves the door wide open for Clarke to expand on her world.
But the story isn’t merely a magical tale. It’s a story of struggle, between knowing and doing, reason and madness, chaos and law, science and nature. It’s at times an incredibly moving love story, a daring adventure and I’m starting to sound like the guy writing blurbs for the back of dust jacket.
The point is, this book is layered, dense, inventive and engaging. Susanna Clarke takes the best of English fiction (leaning heavily on dry wit, plucky prose and often with tongue placed firmly in cheek) and manages to create a wholly original work while losing none of the charm one would expect from a brilliant British author. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a flawless book. Read it. Twice.