Susanna Clarke
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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Bloomsbury, HC, © 2004, 783 pp, ISBN #1-58234-416-7
Reviewed June 2006

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a gargantuan tome which I'd not read until now because I'd heard wildly varying things about it, from people who absolutely loved it to people who found it deadly dull, and everywhere in between. Being a slow reader I always seemed to have something else to read, but once it was put on the reading list for my book discussion group, I took it out from the library and gave it a whirl.

In the early 19th century, Britain is fighting the Napoleonic Wars, and the government is in a funk. Far away from all this, in Yorkshire, a society of magicians meets regularly to discuss magic. None of them, however, practice magic - their interest is purely theoretical. A newcomer named John Segundus disrupts the society, but through them he learns of an old man living in a mansion nearby named Mr. Norrell, and he and a Mr. Honeyfoot visit this gentleman, finding that Norrell has a huge library and is indeed a practical magician - apparently the only one in England.

Norrell tricks the Yorkshire magicians into giving up their titles, and he then moves - with his manservant Childermass - to London. The turning point in the book comes when Norrell meets Sir Walter Pole and his fiancee. The to-be Lady Pole dies, but Norrell summons a faerie to return her to life. The faerie however takes a rather odd price for his efforts, leaving both Lady Pole and Sir Walter's servant Stephen Black in a strange state of limbo for years to come. Following this, Norrell becomes a celebrity and helps the government in their efforts in the war. He is often attended by a pair of hangers-on, Misters Drawlight and Lascelles.

Enter Jonathan Strange, who by a strange turn of events has independently become a practical magician. He has studied as best he can, but found that Norrell has bought every book on magic that he could find, leaving Strange to make his own reasonings about the art. Strange himself comes to London where he meets Norrell and becomes Norrell's student. Despite his mouthings, Norrell's goal is to become the greatest and only magician of his age, yet he finds being able to talk to Strange - his only equal - to be too great an attraction, and the two become uneasy friends.

Strange, younger and more outgoing than Norrell, becomes more intimately involved in helping in the war effort than Norrell. Unfortunately, events surrounding the magicians and their households in Britain take a turn for the worse, leaving the two men at odds and even at loose ends as the book heads into its final third.

To be sure, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is very long, and very s-l-o-w. The first third of the book focuses mainly on Norrell and the people around him, and it is very tedious. It takes about 80 pages for the story to actually get going, and a couple hundred more pages to really get interesting. Although Clarke's ability to generate mood and atmosphere is excellent, this is an uneasy trade-off for a reader to have to grapple with. The book becomes more of a page-turner as it moves on, though it's still fairly wordy. But it would have been considerably improved had the first part been condensed so that we could meet Jonathan Strange sooner and get on with things.

On the bright side, Clarke's approach to writing a story based in English myth is refreshing, as neither Strange nor Norrell are fools (despite their flaws), and the relationship between humans and faeries is treated seriously and intelligently, which is to say, the humans don't get hoodwinked by the clever faeries and left out to dry. Rather, the humans and faeries negotiate with one another, and spend much of the book dancing around each other - knowingly or (in the case of Strange) unknowingly - trying to get the upper hand. Clarke subtly underscores the difference between humans and faeries (humans are rational, faeries are magical), and often blurs the lines between them, not only with the magical humans, but with the irrational humans.

Also to the good, all of the major plot points get resolved in the end. I was pretty concerned that some of the characters would be left hanging, and I was gratified that they weren't. Again, it takes a long time to get there, but it does get there.

The book is somewhat hobbled by the vague characterizations of its title characters. Norrell is (basically) a self-important, greedy recluse, but none of this informs us as to his motivation to go to London to help with the war effort. Indeed, it seems entirely against his character, and it doesn't substantially further his aims of buying up the existing magic books in the nation. Perhaps he just wanted to gain recognition, but to what end? This might have been cleared up had we learned more about Norrell's early life, but other than one brief anecdote his life as a young man remains unknown.

Strange is a more knowable character, although still highly mercurial. I often found it difficult to fully buy that he loved his wife, and his drive to become a magician seemed somewhat capricious. To be sure there was a certain sense that characters were being manipulated by forces beyond their understanding to do certain things, although what or who was doing the manipulating remained unknown. This didn't make for very convincing or arresting character drama, and so the story mainly fell back on its atmosphere and plot, which seemed disappointing given the (some call it) Victorian style in which the book is written.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell certainly has points to recommend it, but again, its length undermines many of its good elements. It's at its most interesting when either it's portraying a history of English magic (and by the end of the book one wishes it had space for an appendix to cover some details of English magic from the end of the book to the present) or when its plot is driving to its conclusion. If Clarke writes a sequel, I'd consider reading it - but perhaps only if it doesn't greatly exceed 400 pages in length.

hits since 11 June 2006.

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