Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

[Ed. note: While there are a couple of big articles in the hopper, nothing was ready for today’s publishing deadline. Fortunately, the soon-to-be-promoted Brad was waiting in the wings, ready to step up at a moment’s notice. Another big thanks to Brad, who will soon be getting his own photo and byline.]

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke

Let me be frank:  I loved this novel.  I mean, I really loved it.  I know a lot of folks say they loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but for me my love of this book goes to an altogether higher level of affection and respect than may be typical for the hackneyed expression, “I loved it.”  Sort of like, Susanna Clarke would be my #2 choice[1] for telling me stories late at night on a chilly evening, in front of a blazing fire, with hot chocolate, roasted marshmallows, and snuggling.  Or like, the amazing feeling when you find Mr. or Ms. Right and discover this person feels the same way about you.  Or in guy terms, your favorite football team crushes its most hated rival in the Super Bowl, and your favorite band pulls of a dynamite halftime show with no bad notes and all the songs you loved as a kid, and Beyonce has a major wardrobe malfunction lasting more than 1 second.  Yeah, the novel is that wonderful!

Not only is it a great novel of magic and fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century, it is a superb work of literature that also just happens to be a great novel of magic and fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century.  And it has an oddly compelling love story as well.  Even grumpy old guys like me can have our hearts softened once in a great while, and the winsome Ms. Clarke does that quite well; the reader ends up caring very much about Jonathan and Arabella, the fictional lovers.  Summary:  There’s nothing in Jonathan Strange that I didn’t find absolutely wonderful, with one major exception.  The book checks in at a hefty 782 pages, causing me to offer up this one complaint:  It’s far too short!  And it cries out for a sequel.  No, for sequellae.

Those who haven’t read it may ask, “What’s so cool about this book?”  Imagine Harry Potter meeting up with Charles Dickens; the two of them then amble down the road to the home of the redoubtable Jane Austen, there concocting amongst themselves an epic tale of history, chivalry, valor, love and betrayal, all with a magical overlay.  Toss this tale into a witchery cauldron of your choice, throw in a dash of Oscar Wilde, a pinch of 21st century postmodern skepticism, and bring a very competent author—prepared to invest about 10 years in a labor of love—who pours in a thorough knowledge of English history from the late 18th and early 19th centuries (the kind you’d only get in an English public school).  Then skew your plot just enough so it’s charmingly cockeyed in places.  Bring this concoction to a slow boil, stirring constantly for about ten years; violá!–you have the finest work of alternative history it’s ever been my privilege to read.  There’s real history mixed in:  For example, the mad King George gets his moment in the limelight; and the English war to stop Napoleon Bonaparte form much of the novel’s sub-text.  In the richness of its world, Jonathan Strange is on a par with Lord of the Rings; better, deeper, more compelling than the aforesaid Harry Potter series.  In fact, Jonathan Strange very much resembles Charles Dickens’ finest work in this regard—those who have read any Dickens will find themselves in familiar literary territory.  The only modern historical novels I’ve read recently to which I can compare it in terms of depth and intricacy are Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, and Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx.[2]

But like LOTR and the later Harry Potter novels, Jonathan Strange—though it deals with rare magic, cunning fairy princes, inaccessible castles, and damsels in distress—is no kid’s book.[3]  In creating its own world, a world that hangs together throughout, it’s equal to LOTR and to the Dune mythos as well, as well as more outre works of science fiction or fantasy like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy[4] or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (works which remind me of each other—but that’s a subject for another—as yet unwritten—review).

This glorious novel is set in an England where magic exists but has gone dormant.  In a wonderful scene, conjuring up something oh-so-typically-English, the book opens with a meeting of the City of York Society of Magicians.  But the Society’s members don’t actually do magic.  In proper English fashion, they present to each other lengthy scholarly disquisitions about magic as it once existed, complete with footnotes, arcane quotes from foreign languages and obscure reference works (all of which Ms. Clarke duly cites in footnotes of her own, set out in proper scholarly fashion), and good old 18th century English stuffiness.  What could be more blue-blooded?

It takes Mr. Norrell (we never learn his first name) to show the York Magicians what real magic is.  And he creates a sensation.  Riding on the crest of his fame, he moves to London, where he becomes the toast of the town.  Reluctantly, he takes Jonathan Strange as a pupil, a pupil who will finally become the master (and where have we found that plot device before?).  Norrell and Strange complement each other, but also become rivals, because each has a different magical ethos.  That difference forms the heart and soul of this riveting book.  I won’t give away more than that—no spoilers here!  If you haven’t yet read the book, go for it.  (As a bookseller, I have it on good authority that new or like new copies of the hardbound edition can be found in many remainder bins or on-line at reduced prices.  You really have no excuse not to read this wonderful book!)

From now on, when we talk about the fictional worlds that mean something to us, that shape our personal identities, that resonate with our “real world,” we must add to Middle Earth, Dune, Hogwart’s, “a galaxy far, far away,” and 221B Baker Street, that achingly beautiful England chockablock full of strange magic, inhabited by Messrs. Strange and Norrell.  We must hope that Jonathan can dispel the Darkness and return to his beloved Arabella.  We must hope the good Ms. Clarke comes up with a true sequel to Jonathan Strange, one that has a happy ending.  Finally, we must believe (as all good children know in their heart of hearts) that magic is real, and can heal us like, well, like . . . magic.

Rating:  The World Cup finals!  I cannot recommend this magical book highly enough.  Buy it, read it, read it to your older kids, re-read it, immerse yourself in Susanna Clarke’s wonderful world of magic, and regret that our oh-so-skeptical age has marginalized magic—the magic that exists in each person.  Invite Messrs. Strange and Norrell into your home; they will be very good, polite, English guests, and you will enjoy their odd company immensely.

Musical inspiration:  No metal here, death or otherwise.  I wrote the first draft this review listening to Pat Metheny’s The Way Up; and did the re-write listening to Metheny’s magical and heartbreakingly beautiful song “Más Allá” (“Beyond”), from an earlier album, The First Circle.  I especially recommend the version with Argentinian vocalist/bassist Pedro Aznar performing with the Aca Seca Trio, found on You Tube at this URL:  Aznar was Metheny’s vocalist for a time, and wrote the Spanish lyrics for this haunting tune.

[1]The #1 choice for this difficult duty is Brad’s significant other, since even grumpy footie coaches need lovin’.

[2]The Quincunx and An Instance of the Fingerpost are not a fantasy or sci-fi novels; they’re historical fiction.  Moreover, they are very good historical fiction.  When you, gentle reader, tire of either sci-fi or fantasy (assuming something so horrible could ever occur!), I highly recommend either book (or both) as worthy of your consideration.  (NB:  The OED defines “quincunx” as “an arrangement of five objects in a square or rectangle in which four occupy the corners and one the center.”  Such a pattern is the key to understanding Palliser’s multi-leveled novel, as well as a worthy metaphor for the novel itself.)  Much as I’d like to do so, I won’t ask Pep for leave to review either fine work in this esteemed blog, having exhausted my visitor’s privileges on non-fantasy/sci-fi by reviewing The Club Dumas a few weeks ago.  And I won’t even bother to ask José; he would simply utter an unintelligible growl, or try to poke my eyes out.  (Second NB:  If you find well-done historical fiction enjoyable, I understand Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall is also worth the time and effort.  I have the book, but have not yet had time to read it—too many cheesy vampire novels, too little time!)

[3]Thankfully, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a great children’s book!  Read a chapter a night to your kids.  All of you will be glad you did.  They’ll find LOTR on their own when they’re ready for it.

[4]Which Pep swears he will someday review on this esteemed blog—if he doesn’t, I’ll either do it myself or send José and his “magic fingers” after Pep.


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