Friday, September 01, 2006

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke


I have just read the most amazing book. I fully intend to read it again.


“Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” is about magic. Specifically, the two opposing viewpoints on magic presented by a magician and his pupil. Gilbert Norrell wants to ensure that magic is a refined, scholarly art practised only by gentleman, and in a perfect world, only by him. He is convinced that he is the only person qualified to do the job. He has done the reading. He has studied. He owns all the books; he’s collected and hoarded every book on magic that he can find, and this way made sure that only he can do magic. Nobody else can be trusted.

He wants to bring English Magic back to prominence as the repectable occupation that it should be, not the wild unpredictable dangerous magic that others before him have done.


Jonathan Strange enters his life as his protegee and things go very disorderly after that. I refuse to tell you much about young Strange. I would rather have you discover him on your own as you experience the story.

What you do need to know about Jonathan Strange at this point, is that he will turn Mr Norrell’s world upside down.

These two men are surrounded by a rich cast of characters who I can’t even begin to describe. Each one of them (real and fictional) contributes to the story in surprising ways.

It’s so wrapped up in real history that the entire thing is very believable. It’s set in the early 19th century but written from a point in which many of the characters are still alive. Time has not gone past the mid 1800s.

Footnotes regularly appear to help the reader understand events in history that explain details. Often these footnotes lead us to some of the books on magic that Mr Norrell has hidden away.

A great deal is made of class structure and the business of being a gentleman; the relationship of master and servant is a recurring theme. There are a lot of wealthy, handsome, well dressed, educated, completely idle men in this story.


The plot in this exquisitely written book is mind boggling. The writing is beautiful. Open this book to any page and you’ll find something stunning. I’ve copied some for you but this doesn’t even begin to cover it. I don’t have time to type out a third of the book, and I haven’t even gotten into Stephen Black and the gentleman with the thistledown hair, or Arabella, or the old lady with the cats, or Norrell’s resurrection of Miss Wintertowne, and I haven't even told you about the Raven King....oh just read these excerpts!!!

Bleak: A great old church in the dead of winter is a discouraging place at the best of times; the cold of a hundred winters seems to have been preserved in its stones and to seep out of them.

Gruesome: Next he made a long, deep cut in his arm, and when he had got a good strong spurt of blood, he let it splash over the heads of the corpses, taking care to anoint the eyes, tongue and nostrils of each. After a moment the first corpse roused itself. There was a horrible rasping sound as its dried-out lungs filled with air and its limbs shook in a way that was very dreadful to behold. Then one by one the corpses revived and began to speak in a guttural language which contained a much higher proportions of screams than any language known to the onlookers.

...and a passage that made way too much sense to me: The backs of their heads were hollowed out; their faces were nothing but thin masks at the front. Within each hollow a candle was burning. This was so plain to him now, that he wondered he had never noticed it before. He imagined what would happen if he went down into the street and blew some of the candles out. It made him laught to think of it. He laughed so much that he could no longer stand....

Some of it is beautiful, some is chilling, some is tongue in cheek clever, and some is downright horrifying. Always it is presented in a slightly detached, aristocratic tone.

This novel examines class structure, geography, history, mystery, sadness, magic, murder, boredom, temptation, restlessness, loneliness, intelligence, fate, politics, insanity, and the intense need for a person to find someone else who understands.

Susannah Clarke, according to the scant information, lives in Cambridge England, and this is her first novel. I believe the first part but not the second. You don’t come out of the gate with a masterpiece like this. I have read that it took her ten years to write it. I totally believe that.

It is not an easy read. It’s a brick of a book, there are multiple characters to keep track of, many different locations, and old fashioned language to trip over. But read it. Take a month or more to read it if you have to. It’s worth it.

As I write this, it’s been about two weeks since I finished it, and I am having Novel Withdrawal. Seriously. I did not want it to end, despite the length of time it took to read it, which may or may not have been a month. I wasn’t keeping track. As I went through it, I found myself re-reading parts of it. Sometimes this was for clarification, but usually it was to savour it, and relish it, and soak up the words.

Reading this novel almost made me want to give up and never write another word again because nothing I write will be this good. But it also makes me want to write better than I ever have before.

5 comments:

Matt Mullenix said...

"Reading this novel almost made me want to give up and never write another word again because nothing I write will be this good. But it also makes me want to write better than I ever have before."

Ah ha! Exactly right. Exactly: Write!

Steve Bodio said...

I have just started-- it is like entering a world. Thanks for the preview...

Life, or Something Like It said...

You sold me on it..Can I borrow your copy?

Heidi the Hick said...

Biddie- I would loan it to you but I can't part with it because I'll have to read it three more times. I hear Christmas is only 4 months away though....

Steve- ENJOY!!

Matt-Exactly! Look at me write! writewritewrite...

As for Susannah Clarke taking 10 years to write this thing: puts my first novel taking 7 years into perspective. Thing is, it really was my first finished novel...and it's not rill great, y'know? My fourth one's turning out ok so far!

natalie_eve said...

Love that book.

It actually took me two tries to get through. The first time I got about fifty pages in and stopped. The second time I read the entire thing in a couple of days and wished it were twice as long.