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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sit Down, Relax, and let Susanna Clarke's Masterpiece Cast Its Spell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Susanna Clarke is the kind of book that begs you to pull up a comfortable chair (preferably next to a nice, cozy fire), relax, and lose yourself in its pages. You may have guessed this simply by observing its bulk - 782 pages with microscopic type. And, it's true - this book is not a quick read. It's also not the type of novel you can carry around in your purse to read in spurts while waiting for appointments, slow traffic, etc. So, what is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and why should you wade through its mass of pages? Read on...

Clarke spins a rich, old-fashioned tale that begins with a meeting of "gentleman" magicians pondering this question: Why [is] there no more magic done in England? After all, magic was routinely performed in the past, but this is 1806 and no one has seen a spell cast in the present day. Of course, the meeting is filled with magicians, but they are theoretical, not practical wizards. To answer their intriguing inquiry, the group decides to seek instruction from a magician in Yorkshire, the reclusive Mr. Norrell. The gentlemen manage to persuade the old magician to move to London, where they promise to help him bring magic back into fashion. To attract attention to his cause, Mr. Norrell performs two incredible feats - he causes all the statues in York Cathedral to speak and he raises a young woman from the dead. Although he knows of their tricky nature, Mr. Norrell employs a Fairie to help with the latter deed. His actions have the desired effect. Suddenly, the old magician finds himself commissioned by the government to help battle Napoleon Bonaparte in a war with France that is causing England no end of frustrations. Satisfied, Mr. Norrell applies himself to his work, spending most of his time studying magic in the safety of his library. He considers the matter of his Fairie assistant not at all.

About this time, Jonathan Strange arrives in the city. Strange is a young gentleman with plenty of money and no career. He approaches the now-famous Mr. Norrell, seeking lessons in magic. The older man soon discovers that the younger has extraordinary natural talent. However, Strange seems restless with constant studying. He would rather be out performing magic, preferably to an admiring audience.

Meanwhile, strange things are happening in London. Lady Pole, the young woman helped by Mr. Norrell, has become withdrawn and morose. She complains that she is tired from dancing all night, even though she has attended no ball. Likewise, servants in her home complain of a bell that is constantly tolling. The master servant, Stephen Black, is having disconcerting experiences with a curious man who promises to make him a king. Both Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange are called on to explain these occurrences, but neither can deduce the real problem, although it smacks of Fairie magic. Mr. Norrell publicly rages against the wretched race and its Otherworlds, while Strange decides to pursue the matter more aggressively. When his own wife mysteriously disappears, Strange drives himself to madness trying to summon a Fairie to help him bring her back.

When Strange finally succeeds, all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, England's entire landscape changes - roads and bridges appear where there were none before, thickets appear which are strewn with corpses and bones, and unrelenting Darkness descends. It is up to Norrell and Strange, who have long since parted ways, to banish the Fairie world and break the spells that bind Mrs. Strange and others to their terrible world. It is a showdown that will require all their magical skills and cost them everything, including their sanity and, indeed, their very lives.

Despite its subject matter, Clarke tells her story in a warm, engaging tone that sucks the reader slowly into the story. As I've said before, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is not a page turner, but the action is steady enough to keep the reader interested. The characters are unique and interesting, especially the colorful Jonathan Strange. I also loved that Clarke created a whole magical history, which she refers to constantly in lively footnotes, which are so convincing that I actually consulted Wikipedia to see if the books she cited ever existed (they didn't - she made them up). All of these things combine to make a rich, detailed story that kept me reading for days. To put it simply, this book cast a heavy spell on me - I simply couldn't put it down.



  1. This was quite a book, wasn't it? I really enjoyed it also. I loved the real life feel of the book and how it took me completely out of my own time and place and set me in the pages of the story. Wonderful review!

  2. Very nice review :) The depth Susanna Clarke gave to the world, through the footnotes and background stories, was also one of my favourite things about it.

  3. I've been wanting to read this, along with The Ladies of Grace Adieu for a long time. It's good to see that so many people enjoy Susanna Clarke!


  4. You're making me want to reread it!

  5. A real feat to read due to its 800 pages, but worth every word! Fun, mysterious, magical, historical, imaginative, with that air of Jane Ayre. I look forward to my next Susanna Clarke experience!

  6. This book was captivating and really something special,but way too long! And it's a totally male world. Female characters are passive and secondary. How old-fashioned. The worst part is the ending: when jonnathan's wife says something like - oh, you do your thing, i understand everything, i didn't mind you forgetting me at all, i know that magic comes first...!
    naive, that disappointed me, since the author seems generally very promissive


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