It is unusual for any fantasy book to be as distinctive, unique and memorable as Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell”; it is particularly unusual for such a book to have been the author’s debut novel. In terms of plot and setting alone the book is significantly different to the vast majority of fantasy books but what is really distinctive about it is the style of writing.
The setting is early-19th Century England; however this is not quite the England of the history books. Although many elements of the setting match recorded history (King George is on the throne, and Europe is at war with Napoleon’s armies) there are also significant differences. The main difference is that in this world England has a long tradition of magic and the history of Clarke’s alternate Earth features many tales of magicians and the faerie world, in particular the medieval sorcerer known as The Raven King, who declared himself ruler of the North of England. However, at the beginning of the story the time of magic appears to be long past. Although many distinguished noblemen may claim to study magic, it is merely a theoretical study of magic; they have no intention of performing magic even if they actually knew how. It is centuries since the time of England’s last great magicians, but that is about to change. The novel begins with a meeting of a local society in the North of England dedicated to studying magic. Its members are surprised to be challenged in a letter by the enigmatic Mr Norrell. He declares that he will demonstrate true magic to them, if in exchange they stop pretending to study magic. He lives up to his word with an attention-grabbing demonstration, and after travelling to London and again showing his ability to perform magic he quickly becomes a celebrity, despite his unsociable and curmudgeonly behaviour. Norrell is uninterested in teaching anyone else to use magic, he guards his secrets jealously and what material he publishes is largely designed to publicise his own beliefs while denigrating alternative theories of magic. He is therefore shocked to make the acquaintance of the novel’s other main character, Jonathan Strange, an affable young nobleman who finds he also has a great natural talent for magic. Initially they become friends of a sort, Norrell being fascinated by Strange’s instinctive magical abilities, even though he resents Strange acquiring his magical abilities without the intensive study Norrell had to do. As the novel progresses their friendship sours, turning into rivalry and then enmity as they disagree over how magical knowledge should be shared with the world.
As well as Strange and Norrell’s rivalry, the other main plot concerns their interactions with the faerie world, particularly with an unnamed faerie lord only referred to as The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. Norrell summons the Gentleman to help with an early piece of magic to save the life of a young noblewoman, however he quickly finds it is easier to attract the faerie’s attention than to make him go away. As the faerie insists on bringing first the woman whose life was saved, then her manservant Stephen Black and then Strange’s beloved wife on bizarre visits into his faerie Kingdom their lives are irrevocably changed and when Strange’s wife eventually disappears Strange finds himself desperately trying to bring her back.
There are also a number of subplots detailing various pieces of magic used by Strange and Norrell and their interactions with historical characters – such as Strange enlisting to help the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular Wars or his later meetings with Lord Byron.
The plot is initially very slow moving, this is a long, dense book with a lot of information and it isn’t until well past the halfway mark that the real plot gets going. That said, once the plot does start it is compelling, the pace does increase towards the end of the book and the story does come to a good conclusion. However, to get through the first part of the book (Strange, the more likeable of the two main characters, doesn’t even appear until a few hundred pages have passed) does require either lots of persistence or a liking of Clarke’s singular writing style.
Clarke’s writing style is deliberately archaic, recalling the writing style of early-19th Century authors. The novel’s narration is similarly archaic, as well as being frequently whimsical and often obsessed with detail. The obsession with detail is most obvious with the numerous footnotes, sometimes multiple footnotes to a page or footnotes so long they span several pages. These footnotes are often whimsical retellings of various pieces of magical trivia or history; usually with little direct relevance to the story although they do help to add depth to the background. That Clarke manages to maintain her unique writing style for such a long book is undeniably an impressive achievement. Inevitably, such an unusual writing style will not be to everyone’s tastes, some people may find it tedious while others will find that it gives the book a unique character and makes even those parts of the book without much plot progression entertaining. The footnotes are likely to similarly divide opinion, they do usually enhance the book’s unique feel, although footnotes so long they run on to the following pages are a possible sign that the footnotes are sometimes being over-used.
The world-building does largely seem consistent and convincing, with the caveat that Clarke is taking the approach of keeping the magic properly mystical, there is no discernible system of magic as in some other fantasy novels and Strange and Norrell’s spells are blatantly made up to match the current demands of the plot.
With such a long book it helps that Clarke’s characterisation is good. The two main magicians are both complex and contrasting characters – Norrell isn’t exactly a villain but he is fairly unpleasant, arrogant and self-centred character whereas Strange is much more charismatic but still flawed, his lack of focus leading him to largely neglect his wife until she disappears. The novel’s real villain, the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, is an interesting character, completely amoral despite his friendly demeanour he is convincingly alien in his outlook and has little comprehension of the thought processes of the human characters he tries to befriend. The supporting characters are also strong; particularly Norrell’s contrary servant Childermass and the likeable Stephen Black, a descendant of slaves now working as a butler who has to endure the faerie lord’s unwanted friendship and insistence that Black is one day destined to be a King. The only real flaw with the characterisation is that the start of the book is arguably dominated too much by the uncharismatic Mr Norrell which doesn’t help the slow pace of the first part of the book.
In summary, this is a unique and impressive debut novel with an interesting (if slow-moving) plot, fascinating background and distinctive writing style. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but personally I think this is a superb book, with the excessively slow start being the only major flaw.
Rating : 9/10