How is it possible, I frequently wondered as I read this 846 page tome, that this is Susanna Clarke's first novel? Wow. This novel is, indeed, a tome. A brilliant, entertaining, humorous epic of a story. This is a November novel, if I ever saw one. I often found myself reading late into the night, hearing the wind lashing rain against the house, burrowing myself deeper into the blankets. On chilly, dark afternoons, I couldn't wait to get a few minutes of magic in before turning to other responsibilities.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell offers proof that some books have seasons to them. I tried to read this novel last year, but couldn't get into it--it was spring. When I picked the novel up again, it was with the caveat that the first 50 pages would have to do it or else. In those 50 pages, on a day of crummy weather, I saw the humor that I had missed the first time around. I discovered that this was a novel that would suck me in and not release me until the end. Huzzah for second chances! (Can you tell that I'm still under its spell?)
I hate to fall into the trap of comparing Clarke's book to the work of other writers, but it's unavoidable. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a 19th century novel that just happened to be published in 2004. It sometimes reads like Dickens, with oddly named, sometimes silly minor characters; trouble-making fops, imperious matrons, and innocent girls; the villians are cold-hearted and murderous. But even more than Dickens, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell reminded me of John Crowley's Little, Big because they share a similar tradition. Both of these big novels deal with the intersection between the human world and the Land of Fairy. Both depict Fairies as a meddling, dangerous race with a penchant for small evils. Both have characters that attempt to straddle the line between the two worlds.
However, though Clarke's novel and Crowley's have these similarities, they are very different in plot and style. I have mixed feelings about Crowley's novel; I often found it frustrating and confusing. Clarke's novel is brilliantly plotted, has a linear structure, and has a great deal of humor. I followed her every step of the way, even when the storyline necessarily got more and more complex. And though it is never easy to follow a story teller into the Land of Fairy, Clarke manages to keep readers with her even there.
Plot in a nutshell: Magic has been gone from England for about 500 years. Though there are theoretical magicians aplenty--these are gentlemen who study the history of magic from books--it is thought that there are no practical magicians left who can actually cast successful spells. This is until the reclusive magician Mr. Norrell comes out of seclusion and challenges the theoretical magicians. If he can actually perform an astounding feat of magic for them to witness, they will renounce any and all study of magic themselves, leaving Mr. Norrell as the only magician in all of England.
Mr. Norrell's goal is to bring magic back to England, but to control it so that only his approved "brand" of magic will prevail. He is feted and celebrated throughout England until Jonathan Strange, a dashing young magician, comes on the scene. Norrell reluctantly sees an ally in Strange and takes him on as his pupil. Norrell believes they will eventually form a partnership; he expects Strange to unquestioningly follow his lead. But it is not long before the young Strange grows weary of Norrell's conservative grip on magic. He chafes at the safe and modest limits Norrell imposes on the magic they practice, convinced that they are not delving deeply enough into the power that magic, especially with the help of fairies, can wield.
In this novel, not only do we get a classic tale of good versus evil, but also a glimpse of what can happen when we meddle with the natural order of things. When Norrell reluctantly performs a bit of black magic to endear himself with a politician who can help his ambitions, he opens England to a world of harm. Strange, too, courts dangerous forms of magic--all in the name of good, but sometimes a benevolent intent can have terrible consequences.
I hope that you have the patience to give this big book a try. As Michael Dirda put it in his Washinton Post review of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell:
"Many books are to be read, some are to be studied, and a few are meant to be lived in for weeks. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is of this last kind. Clarke reportedly took 10 years to write her novel, and she counts on our willingness to linger over conversational repartee and Gothic hugger-mugger, to attend to the inventiveness of each episode, to slow down and savor the period style...."
It really is worth it.