Day 262-- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a rare debut novel--I cannot think of one criticism, let alone many. And--after finishing the last of the 846 pages in my trade paperback copy--I pursed my lips and said something under my breath about Susanna Clarke and how she should have written 100 or so more pages in the novel.

Saying that Strange & Norrell is like "Jane Austen meets Harry Potter" is fairly apt, but not entirely fair; if anything, the description begs elaboration. Set in England during the early part of the 19th century, the novel roots itself firmly in Austen's 'comedy of manners' tradition (there are even countless era-appropriate footnotes dotting the bottoms of the pages). The writing feels like it was written during the Napoleonic wars, in fact.

The story focuses the return of magic to England and the quarrelling of the two magicians that initiate the return (and the Harry Potter comparisons stop here). One is Gilbert Norrell, the other is Jonathan Strange. Norrell is an aging and fussy scholar that is overly cautious in his approach to everything. In addition to immediately offering his aid to Parliament, Norrell is mostly concerned with making sure no one else becomes an English magician. He buys every book on the subject (and I mean every book), and runs every "theoretical" magician out of town. Except for Jonathan Strange, an aloof and absentminded young man of pure talent--through an interesting chain of events, Norrell delightfully takes Strange in as his pupil.

But as they both have different ideas regarding England's best interest regarding magic, things go downhill drastically.

Clarke introduces a warm and heavily developed supporting cast-- Childermass, Norrell's surprisingly independent and talented servant; Stephen Black, the black butler of a local nobleman who gets tied to a vital subplot; the "gentleman with thistle-down hair," the psychotic fairie that serves as the novel's villain; Arabella Strange, Jonathan's whimsical and loving wife; and so on. But the most significant presence--and it's one that's more felt than shown--is that of John Uskglass, the Raven King. A legendary and shadowy magician during the 12th century, Uskglass ruled for centuries and created all of the known magic in England. Norrell fears his name; Strange is drawn to it.

And this division is where the novel really shines--the two title characters are shown to be flawed men, their differing opinions on the Raven King serving as a focus of sorts for the arrogance (Strange) and fear (Norrell). These two men are so well-developed that, by the end of the novel, you hate to finish; you've learned so much about them, their mistakes and blunders and their triumphs, that they feel like family.

Clarke's handling of the magical elements is excellent--it's nearly scholarly, often funny and matter-of-fact (some of the characters in the novel are so English it's incredible!). But it's still magic; Norrell fools the French by creating British warships out of rain, and Strange eventually learns to travel throughout the countryside via mirrors.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell isn't an angry allegory about the Iraq War or a winking parody of old literature. It's a deeply complex, incredibly well-written story that feels short at almost a thousand pages. It's about dangers of hubris and mistrust, the power of forgiveness and friendship, and simple power of story. Read it.


posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 5/25/2007 11:31:00 PM,


At 1:08 AM, Blogger Erica said...

A most excellent review, and one I agree with. I actually listened to this on audio book, which is excellent and has won awards for its superb narration.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

Normally, I love this kind of AU historical, faux footnotes, etc. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood, or something, but I got about halfway through JS&Mr.N and gave up...a rare occurrence for me. Intriguing, yet tedious would be my capsule review. Maybe I should try the audiobook--how does it handle the footnotes?

At 6:25 PM, Blogger Erica said...

When a footnote appears the reader pauses to read each footnote. They were one of my favorite things about the book.

At 4:38 AM, Blogger Lady Insomnia said...

awesome! I thoroughly enjoyed this novel as well, and I'm hoping to again this summer


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