It’s taken me a while since finishing Susanna Clarke’s bestseller to get round to posting about it for two reasons. First, I was acutely conscious that so many other people had already read it, including several friends and loved ones. One of the biggest pleasures in writing blogs about books and music is hearing that you’ve turned someone on to something that you’ve enjoyed, that they never would’ve without your review. Not much chance in this case.
Second reason for the delay: the sheer size and ambition of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s one thousand pages of tightly-woven narrative which succeeds in bringing to life a version of Georgian England that both feels historically accurate and utterly strange. For this is a book that features Napoleon, Wellington, King George III on the one hand, and mirrors you can walk through, evil fairies, and magicians with the ability to displace European cities to America on the other.
In achieving this blend of the real and the surreal, and directly in the character of Jonathan Strange himself, the novel reminded me of a 19th Century Dr. Who. Strange is enigmatic, aloof, nonchalantly talented but mostly just surprised that only he can do what for him – in the world of magic – comes so naturally. His arrival two hundred pages in provides welcome relief from the fussy, closed, disdainful and socially inept Gilbert Norrell who is the dominant magician of the country to begin with.
This book succeeds on so many levels that to critique it at all kind of feels like missing the point: it’s just a really, really enjoyable read. It’s the first thing I’ve read in ages where I found myself eschewing all distractions to get it finished as quickly as humanly possible. Clarke achieves this effect by creating characters you really care about but who, for a variety of reasons, have limited line of sight, or knowledge of the facts, thus creating tragic situations where protagonists come to harm those closest to them.
It feels to me that this is microcosmic of the novel’s broader theme: that of a society’s right to free access to information, so resoundingly relevant to the world we live in today. The ongoing love/hate relationship between Norrell and Strange centres on their disagreement about access to spells and the instructions to cast them, with Norrell the fierce protector of secrecy (on the grounds that humans are unable to deal safely with the powers unleashed) and Strange constantly looking to demystify and explain. This is absolutely not a brainless page-turner.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell does take a bit of ‘getting in to’, for sure. The style, which I’m told apes that of the great Victorian novelists, is full of arcane language and quite stagey dialogue (“If you’ll permit me, sir…” and so on), and I for one found the often lengthy footnotes detailing various elements of the history of magic very irritating, even if they did serve to create a sense of ‘realistic history’. But this book is so worth persisting with, because once it grips you, it simply will not let go.