Book: Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Very good at what it does. You may or may not like what it does

Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Bloomsbury, 2004
ISBN: 1-58234-416-7
782 pages, 2.75 lbs (1.25 kg)

Neil Gaiman writes so engagingly in his blog that my I find myself wanting to agree with almost everything he says. And so when he praised Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell pretty highly (1 , 2), I ordered a copy.

The novel begins in 1806 in what turns out to be a slightly-alternate England. There are any number of theoretical magicians there (you might call them historians of magic) but Mr Norrell is the only practical magician, that is, the only one who can do any magic. (Norrell rhymes with sorrel.) He lives in the Yorkshire countryside and spends his time studying the books on magic he has collected. Despite being mostly interested in scholarship, he wants to bring magic back into use in England. For that purpose, he takes a house in London and eventually persuades the government of the day to let him use his skills for the good of the country, especially against Napoleon. Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, is a gentleman who falls into magic because he finds that all the other occupations he has tried don't suit him. Eventually he becomes Mr Norrell's student and they end up doing various magical and spooky things together and separately.

The book isn't just set in the 19th century, it's written in the style of a 19th-century British novel. Ms Clarke uses some 19th-century spellings ("chuse" for "choose", "sopha" for "sofa", etc) but the plot and narration and pacing are also right out of the 19th century. If Jane Austen had written a long novel about English magicians, she might have written something like this book. Using that style could easily have come off badly and seemed ridiculous, but it doesn't. Indeed, it comes off remarkably persuasively and that's testimony to Ms Clarke's considerable skill.

Unfortunately (for me at least) I grew up watching Bullwinkle and Star Trek and my patience for plots that amble along for 800 pages is distinctly limited. (That's not quite fair; the pace accelerates to a purposeful walk in the last 150 pages or so.) If John M. Ford had worked with the same material, he'd have written it as a short story.

I nearly put the book aside several times. In the end, I'm glad I finished it but it's a pretty near thing. If the idea of a 19th-century-style novel with magicians in it appeals to you, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is your book. If it doesn't, you'll be better off with something else.

The illustrations by Portia Rosenberg, while rather spooky-looking, are only OK if you ask me.

There's a tiny editing error on page 711 in footnote 1 where the abbreviation "cf." (for the Latin confer, meaning "compare") is rendered with two periods.

Posted: Wed - November 3, 2004 at 11:51   Main   Category: