Book Review | Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke

Sitting on my shelf for well over half a decade, thick black and heavy, there was something oppressive about the cover that kept me away. Nearly ten years after publication, I finally cracked it, and I can’t figure out why I waited so long.

Of course, everything looks different in retrospect, and I wish that I hadn’t waited quite so long to enjoy the masterpiece that is  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Set in an alternate England during the Napoleonic wars where magic is, or was, real, but is now passing into academia and myth, a relic of a golden age now passed. The mysterious, private and eccentric Gilbert Norrell jealously guards his rare and unique volumes of magic, secretly plotting to bring it back to England. Jonathan Strange becomes his apprentice and then, because the government finds him easier to get along with than Norrell, goes to the continent to assist English troops in the fight against Napoleon. Meanwhile, Norrell has unwittingly awakened fairy powers in a deal with, if not the devil, what very much seems like it, sending his future, and Strange’s, into an unpredictable path of rediscovery of the magic that the world has forgotten.

Divided into three volumes, Susanna Clarke‘s tome takes on a fascinating form. Her story is full of stories within stories. Chapters would begin with stories, and characters would tell each other stories, and stories would be embedded in footnotes to explain obscure references that the characters were making within the story…

Ranging from the bizarre to the mundane to the horrifying, the stories build up an alternate set of mythological tales that add a depth and reality to Clarke’s alternate England. By the end of the novel, that England felt as real as the real England, and the dry, scholarly way that she tells some of the stories, recorded as they are in historical records of academics, only lends to the feeling of authenticity.

It doesn’t hurt that Clarke’s characters are alive, vibrant, and real. Few, if any, are without their flaws, and some, including among the title characters, are downright distasteful at times. I’ve occasionally heard writers pass along the advice to “kill your lovelies,” the gist being to kill your characters, especially those that your reader has grown attached to. One of my favorite examples, if not occurring in literature itself, is during the denouement of the movie Serenity (SPOILER ALERT) as the crew of the ship lands after a peril strewn flight and pilot Wash is unexpectedly killed by the Reavers. A favorite among the crew, Wash’s death is a moment poignant and painful and has the effect of raising the stakes as the remaining crew must rush from Wash’s side so his death is not in vain.

It’s a lesson Clarke knows well. She has no problem putting her lovelies through the ringer, if stopping short of actually killing them, and no one passes through her plotting unscathed by the touch of magic. Further, each is a work of art, deftly developed and crafted to a three-dimensional figure that changes over the course of the novel. If Clarke’s clever story telling doesn’t pull you in until the final twist, her characters will, vesting you with an interest in their future that keeps you reading until the last page.

It would make a great mini-series, and apparently the BBC agrees. Filming started at the end of 2013.

Although 2014 is the tenth anniversary of  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the story maintains a timeless quality that I hope will keep it on shelves for years to come. If you haven’t read it yet, pick up a copy and enjoy the strange and unique tale that Clarke has created.



Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel Book Cover Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel
Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury USA

It's 1808 and that Corsican upstart Napoleon is battering the English army and navy. Enter Mr. Norrell, a fusty but ambitious scholar from the Yorkshire countryside and the first practical magician in hundreds of years. What better way to demonstrate his revival of British magic than to change the course of the Napoleonic wars? Susanna Clarke's ingenious first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, has the cleverness and lightness of touch of the Harry Potter series, but is less a fairy tale of good versus evil than a fantastic comedy of manners, complete with elaborate false footnotes, occasional period spellings, and a dense, lively mythology teeming beneath the narrative. Mr. Norrell moves to London to establish his influence in government circles, devising such powerful illusions as an 11-day blockade of French ports by English ships fabricated from rainwater. But however skillful his magic, his vanity provides an Achilles heel, and the differing ambitions of his more glamorous apprentice, Jonathan Strange, threaten to topple all that Mr. Norrell has achieved. A sparkling debut from Susanna Clarke--and it's not all fairy dust.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.