Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004) – Susanna Clarke

Title:Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Author:Susanna Clarke
Publisher:Bloomsbury/Jonathan Ball Publishers
Date published:2004
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Jonathan Ball Publishers kindly sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review

Susanna Clarke’s modern classic is like nothing you’ve ever read before. In the year 1807, and in an England of Dickensian notions, Mr Gilbert Norrell is the most accomplished magician, and he knows very well that both his abilities and his elaborate library are coveted by all other magicians, including the York society of magic whose members were becoming used to Norrell’s hoarding of both his books, and his magic. Norrell, as with any ‘Scrooge-like’ character is no longer happy sharing the spotlight with other magicians (despite the fact that he finds them inferior) and challenges them to a bet that will force them to cease identifying as magicians if he wins. In a truly fantastic act of incredible magic Norrell creates a spectacle that London is unable to ignore, and all but one magician sign away their titles.

Soon after this Norrell and his most loyal companions Lascelles and Childermass are creating a stir in London as they are determined to bring ‘real’ magic back to the people of England. They will be unprepared for the sudden appearance of a young man named Jonathan Strange who claims to be just as powerful as Norrell. Married to Arabella Strange and despite not having Norell’s extensive library of magical texts, Strange is indeed an extraordinary magician, and Norrell is forced to acknowledge the younger man. Strange is much less cautious with his magic, and soon finds himself being asked to assist in governmental and royal pursuits, much to Norrell’s disapproval.

Norrell on the other hand proves his worth by bringing a gentleman, Sir Walter Pole’s deceased wife, Lady Pole, back to life. This act, will turn Norrell into a celebrated member of London society but will also backfire on the magician as the doomed Lady Pole will continue to resent him for the rest of her days. Strange too will also prove to be capable of even darker forms of magic when, during time spent in Spain he performs magic so black that even his greatest admirers will question his motives. It will not be long before a feud between the two magicians will cause a great divide to occur between those who have long since worshiped Strange and Norrell – and so Strangites and Norrellites begin debating magic in dedicated newsletters and in scholarly institutions, but very rarely among themselves.

“’And can a magician kill a man by magic?’ the Duke had asked. And he had answered, ‘A magician might, but a gentleman never could’”.

Soon it becomes clear that there are several other players in this strange and dark world the magicians inhabit. The mysterious ‘thistle-haired man’ appears to Sir Walter Pole’s servant Stephen Black and regularly drags him into a place known only as Lost Hope where the dancing never ends; legends of the mysterious Raven King which seem to haunt Norrell and Strange for very different reasons, and the odd prophecy foretold by a so-called charlatan named Vinculus who speaks of a “nameless slave” who will one day become king. In fact the novel is scattered with a number of unique and alluring characters who are never whom they first appear to be. Thus the overall magic of this novel is interwoven into plots and sprawling footnotes and meanderings into alternate realities that will delight lovers of fantasy.

“…then everything that Strange and Norrell had ever done was child’s-play and magic was a much stranger and more terrifying thing than any of them had thought of. Strange and Norrell had been merely throwing paper darts about a parlour, while real magic soared and swooped and twisted on great wings in a limitless sky far, far above them”

Susanna Clarke’s epic novel (it is over 1000 pages long) is a masterpiece not only because of her intriguing (though deeply unlikeable) characters who seem to seep into the reader’s subconscious despite the sense of foreboding they all seem to exhibit, but also because of her incredible ability to create multiple worlds each as atmospheric as the next. From the gloominess of a London between 1807 and 1814, expansive rivers and forests across Europe, glittering ballrooms and dingy houses where only the truly lonely could find comfort, Clarke’s tapestry of places and spaces are as integral as Norrell and Strange’s manipulation of the world around them.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of those novels that through alternate spaces and conflicting characters will meander through social commentary, class struggles and political notions with a grace that simply does not require an atypical ending or conclusion. Each page, each carefully written paragraph and each enthralling character takes the reader further and further into a fictional world so engrossing that you will remain within the pages long after you have put the book back on your bookshelves.

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