Archive for November, 2013

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

24 November 2013

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The setting is England 1806, with the Napoleonic war in full swing, but this England has an unfamiliar back history. In the Middle Ages powerful magicians had walked the land, with the north ruled for centuries by the strongest of them, the Raven King. But magic faded with the first stirrings of modernity, and the adepts with it, leaving only scraps of writings and apocryphal tales of what had been – and a sorry lot of aspirant magicians. Some of these would-bes-if-they-could-bes are gathered together in the opening scene.

Soon we encounter the old, dried-up, small-hearted, bitter Mr Norrell, who unfortunately is marked for greatness: he is the first true magician to appear for hundreds of years. The early part of the book records his clumsy rise to high places, as he puts his magic to the service of England’s rulers and their wars. But to his consternation another true magician appears on the scene, the young, witty and personable Jonathan Strange. They stalk each other throughout much of the story.

The tale is told with dry humour, in a style reminiscent of the period.

It is strengthened by many strong characters. Norrell’s hard-headed servant John Childermass is one; another is the shabby street-stall magican Vinculus, repeatedly exposed as a fraud yet puzzlingly hard to dismiss out of hand; their encounter makes for one of the best chapters in the book. Then there is Strange’s charming wife Arabella; the strong-willed young beauty Lady Pole; a vain, sinister fairy known as the Silver-Haired Gentleman, whose “natural manner seemed to be one of extreme self-congratulation”; and Stephen Black, the black servant of Lady Pole’s husband.

The prior history of England is slowly built up through extensive, tongue-in-cheek footnotes. There is a wildness in the old magic; it scares Norrell but intrigues Strange. This drives some of the plot. But meanwhile Lady Pole and Stephen Black are caught in a dark spell that compels them to dance every night in a fairy court, and spend each day in deep depression; when Lady Pole tries to speak of it she talks only nonsense.

This is a wonderful book. The magical setting is rich and convincing and entertainingly described.

View all my reviews