Susanna Clarke

"Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie DEC 19, 2004)

"Suddenly Stephen heard someone say in a vivid whisper. 'You are quite right to pay them no attention! For when all is said and done, what are they but servants and drudges? And when, with my assistance, you are elevated to your rightful place at the very pinnacle of nobility and greatness, it will be a great comfort to you to remember that you spurned their friendship!' It was only a whisper, yet Stephen heard it most distinctly above the voices and laughter. . . . He had the odd idea that, though only a whisper, it could have passed through stone or iron or brass. It could have spoken to you from a thousand feet beneath the earth and you would have still heard it. It could have shattered stones and brought on madness."

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrrell is a very long novel (782 pages), yet when I came to the conclusion I was sorry to see it end and to say good-by to the characters I had become so attached to. Apparently I am not the only one to think this book is a marvel. As I write this review, it is shortlisted for the 2004 Whitbread Award for First Novel has shortlisted for the Guardian Unlimited First Book Award.

In early 19th century Georgian England, the big news was the seemingly never-ending war with Napoleon Bonaparte. Of lesser interest, except to a few, was magic. All over the country small groups of men, theoretical magicians, scholars all, would meet from time-to-time to discuss the practice and history of magic. No one had actually practiced real magic for hundreds of years. A small society of theoretical magicians lived in the city of York. They had heard of a magician in Yorkshire, a Mr. Norrell, who had an extraordinary library of rare books on magic. They assumed that he was a theoretical magician, like themselves. A delegation of two were selected to pay a visit to Mr. Norrell in order to see his wonderful library. Norrell, reclusive, self-centered and socially inept, hoarded his precious volumes and seemed reluctant to share his books or his knowledge. The two magicians from York asked their host, "...why magic has fallen from its once-great state in our nation? Our question is, sir, why is no more magic done in England?" Upon which Norrell replied, "It is a wrong question, sir. Magic is not ended in England. I myself am quite a tolerable magician." When the collective York society heard about Norrell's proclamation, they doubted his "active magician" status. They asked him to make some magic to prove his claims. Norrell, incensed at being called a fabulist, agreed to perform a magical feat in the York Cathedral on a given day and time. He then made a bargain with the society members that if he failed to live up to his claims, he would give his oath never to make any such claims again. However, if he should succeed, the members of the society would disband and promise never to claim the title of "magician" again. Need I say that Norrell proved himself beyond anyone's expectations?

As the only practicing magician in England, Mr. Norrell, whose ambitions began to grow after the York event, moved to London with the intent of bringing magic back to his country. He also got the notion that he would like to use his magic to aid the British in their war efforts, thus bringing fame to himself and practical magic into the spotlight. Sir Walter Pole, a cabinet minister, saw no reason to utilize Norrell's services - after all, he had no military training. Then Norrell performed a truly unbelievable act of black magic for Pole, the kind of magic which he had thought to never use. That act persuaded Pole to accept the magicians assistance. Norrell's participation in the war managed to terrify the French. Unfortunately and unknowingly, Norrell's dark magic brought a thistle-haired gentleman from the land of faeries to London, who worked some very nasty magic of his own, and wrecked havoc in the world around him - as well as the Other World.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange, a wealthy gentleman who lived near the Welsh border, wanted to marry. Desiring a career, something meaningful to occupy his time in order to please his pretty young fiance, he decided to become a magician after finding he had a talent for the practice. Strange was quite different from Mr. Norrell, being young, handsome and charismatic. He too moved to London where his path crossed Norrell's. The older magician took the younger man on as a pupil. Norrell actually shared his books and knowledge with him, but his underlying motive was to control Strange's magical knowledge. When Strange decided he no longer needed Norrell, exactly what the older magician feared most, a feud began between the two which estranged them. Neither man, however was aware of the strange and dangerous being from the land of faeries who had entered their world.

The above is just a brief summary of this tale's beginning - a tiny taste of the enchanting plot - and doesn't begin to do it justice. The book is narrated in a scholarly (but not dry) manner, complete with footnotes which are almost as fascinating as the main story. It's as if a magician, perhaps a former colleague, were looking back in time and relating this history. The thread which ties the entire novel together is the prophecy attributed to the shadowy figure of the Raven King. As a child he was taken by faeries and later became king of both England and Faerie, and the greatest magician of all time. His prophecy: "Two magicians will appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second long to behold me. . . ." It is Susanna Clarke's spectacular, rich narrative that makes it all work - like magic.

Ms. Clarke's characters are magnificent - so real they practically leap off the page. Her descriptions enable one to really get a three-dimensional picture of each one in the mind's eye. Ms. Clarke also gives the reader remarkable insight into human passions - envy, greed, ambition, friendship, love and redemption. Her take on English society during this period is often satirical, and very humorous at times.

Oddly, I have heard some compare Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to Harry Potter. I don't understand the comparison. The only commonality between the two is the world of magic. I could better compare this novel to the work of Charles Dickens, especially the way Clarke's characters and settings are brought to life by her vivid descriptions. I highly recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - a novel destined to become a classic.

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About the Author:

author photoSusanna Clarke in Nottingham in 1959, the eldest daughter of a Methodist Minister. A nomadic childhood was spent in towns in Northern England and Scotland. She was educated at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and has worked in various areas of non-fiction publishing. In 1990 she left London and went to Turin to teach English to stressed-out executives of the Fiat motor company. The following year she taught English in Bilbao.

She returned to England in 1992 and spent the rest of that year in County Durham, in a house that looked out over the North Sea. There she began working on her first novel.

From 1993 to 2003 Susanna Clarke was an editor at Simon and Schuster's Cambridge office, where she worked on their cookery list.  She has published seven short stories and novellas in US anthologies.

Susanna lives in Cambridge with her partner, the novelist and reviewer Colin Greenland. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014