Monthly Book Review by Ajarn Scott
November 2008


Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1006 pp.

I first saw this book, a thick paperback with a red cover, yellow letters and a small yellow silhouette of a raven, a few years ago when I was living in Germany.  I picked it up once or twice while in the local bookstore and glanced at the beginning words on the back cover: “They year is 1806.  England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past.”  The cover text goes on to say that Mr. Norrell is one of the magicians; Mr. Strange is another.  They are quite opposite from each other and the text indicated this would provide great conflict in the book.  I thought the story sounded interesting.  The sheer size of the book (1006 pages) stopped me from buying it, however, though I continued to pick it up and considered it anew on each subsequent visit to the bookstore.  I thought I might read it someday.  An American colleague of mine there in Kassel actually did read it.  She told me, yes, by all means buy it – you’ll love it.  But, she warned me, it’s the type of book best saved for a two week vacation at the beach when you can read it without distraction and give it the attention it deserves.  So I finally did buy the book.  It sat on my shelf another year.  Then I brought it from Germany to Thailand when I moved to Bangkok last year.  And finally, during the last two weeks of our recent October semester break, I took the time to read and enjoy it.  It really is a satisfying book.  And it is also, as my colleague informed me, the type of book best saved for a period of a few weeks when you can set aside time each day to savor the languid pace of the rather long, long story.

Another reason I initially hesitated was the genre.  As interesting as the text on the cover made the story sound, I couldn’t help but notice it was about “magicians” and magic.  Not that I have anything against magic, per se, but fantasy and science fiction are not my most favorite genres when it comes to choosing fiction to read.  I did read the Harry Potter series (the first six books anyway) and I liked them well enough.  The cover of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell makes it obvious that this book will blend the real world with the fantastical, much like J.K. Rowling does in Harry Potter, rather than create an entirely new world like J.R.R. Tolkein does in Lord of the Rings.  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is, in fact, quite similar to Harry Potter in many ways, which makes comparison inevitable, but there are two major differences which set it apart: it is utterly and completely for adults and it takes place in the historical past, specifically in the early 19th century. 

I wondered if I would enjoy that time setting since I usually like more modern stories, but the time and place are one of the major attractions of the story.  I was suspicious as I began reading.  While Clarke does not speak in language used in the 1800s, she does throw a few 19th century slang spellings in for effect (most notably “shew” for “show”).  These were not distracting at all, however.  Actually, the spellings and tone of voice of the narrator seem quite comfortably authentic and do not detract from the story at all.  Even the footnotes (used extensively throughout to “explain” the history of magic in England) are not as bothersome as I’d imagined they would be when I first noticed them (and how many of them there were). 

The book begins, as noted above, during the Napoleonic wars.  Mr. Norrell, the one magician who believes he can restore magic, which has been woefully neglected, to its rightful place in England, is hired by the government (after proving his abilities, of course) to help win the war.  He also brings a recently deceased woman, a Member of Parliament’s wife, back to life.  Something seems not quite entirely right about her once she’s back among the living, of course, and the reader knows this is because Mr. Norrell has made a deal with a not particularly nice chap from the neighboring world of Faerie who Mr. Norrell has called upon for help.  Because of this deal, the woman spends half her existence in Faerie and can only speak nonsense when she tries to alert anyone in the real world as to her plight.  It will take a long time for the rest of book’s characters to learn about this predicament.  In the meantime, Mr. Norrell proceeds to turn himself into the only practicing magician in England as he bureaucratizes magic.  Eventually, though, he takes on an eager student named Jonathan Strange.  It is actually Mr. Strange who goes off to the wars to practice all kinds of spells which eventually help England establish victory over Napoleon (you didn’t know that England won these wars with the help of magic?  Then you must read this book simply to set the record straight if for no other reason!)

The book meanders without any hurry through history and its own story in an enjoyable way.  It is a tale one can enjoy escaping into – or with – each day for an hour or two.  The story seems to stall a bit around page 650.  All the basic plot lines have petered out by this point.  The wars have been won with the help of magic and life goes on.  One wonders what else could possible develop that might re-ignite the story and make it come alive again.  There is action throughout the book – the war and the magic Strange uses to win it – but nothing seems to be leading to any resolution of the small issues raised at the beginning of the book.  By this point one is lulled into thinking that perhaps these little problems (for example, the two or three people that have been kidnapped and taken at least part-time to Faerie) will never be resolved.  And one begins to accept that these things will not be resolved for what else could possible happen in a story that has already told a lot and has seemed, at this point, to have exhausted itself.  A lot can still happen, as it turns out.  New characters and a new twist are introduced in the final third of the book.  It is actually the final 350 pages of the book that are the most exciting.  Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell part company and now there are two competing magicians who don’t like each other anymore.  There are a few missing people (the reader knows they are in Faerie) or semi-missing people, who still need to be rescued and Mr. Strange is perhaps the man to do the rescuing.  If Mr. Norrell doesn’t stop him, that is.  And here I will stop discussing the plot so that I don’t spoil anything for those of you curious (and dedicated) enough to read this long yet charming book.

There are one or two other attractive features of the book worth mentioning that have nothing to with plot, however.

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed most in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is Susanna Clarke’s droll and spot-on British humor.  For instance, one semi-kidnapped character has spent most of the night following the nasty “man with the thistle-down hair” from dark world to dark world in order to dig up a root that this fairy needs for a spell (an evil spell, of course, which involves Jonathan Strange’s wife!)  Finally this character, called Stephen Black, is allowed to fall asleep on the cold, hard ground.  Consider this passage (on page 604) as he awakes:

“When he awoke it was dawn.  Or something like dawn.  The light was watery, dim and incomparably sad.  Vast, grey, gloomy hills rose up all around them and in between the hills there was a wide expanse of black bog.  Stephen had never seen a landscape so calculated to reduce the onlooker to utter despair in an instant.

“This is one of your kingdoms, I suppose, sir?” he said.

“My kingdoms?” exclaimed the gentleman in surprize.  “Oh, no!  This is Scotland!”

There were many such passages like the example above that made me chuckle out loud.  The passage above also illustrates the other non-plot oriented point that I wish to make before encouraging everyone to run out and buy their own copy of this book: the English used in the writing is very simple to read and understand.  This book is easily accessible to both native and non-native readers of English.  And, for a long book, there are amazingly not too, too many characters to get to know.  The characters we are introduced to we will know – and appreciate – throughout the entire 1006 pages.  The book also contains many lovely yet haunting charcoal-style black and white illustrations by Portia Rosenberg.

So now, with all that said, I encourage all of you to go out and get a copy of this book.  If anyone needs even further encouragement, I will add that Ajarn Ingo has also read this book and praises it highly.  It is available at Kinokuniya but I have also seen used copies in hardcover and paperback at both of the used bookstores (Dasa Books and Elite Books) on Sukumvit (both stores are near the Emporium shopping center).

 

Scott Humphries, 5 November 2008 Bangkok