The year is 1806 in Yorkshire, England. True magic is believed to be long vanished from the country, relegated to the merely academic study of gentleman-scholars, when one man – the unlikely, unfriendly, and reclusive Mr. Norrell – claims to be a practicing magician. Soon, he has a pupil, Jonathan Strange, who seems to be everything Mr. Norrell is not – young, married, and charismatic. And then there is the prophecy, about the two magicians that will appear in England…
So begins Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a book I love for so many reasons. First of all, I love the characters. Susanna Clarke reminds me of Charles Dickens with her skill of creating colourful, memorable characters, from the curmudgeonly Mr. Norrell, who reminds me a bit of myself, as he dislikes parties and likes books more than people, to Jonathan Strange himself, one of my favourite characters ever, who does madness so well. There are also the unpleasant Drawlight and Lascelles, the enigmatic Childermass, the street-magician Vinculus, the unfortunate Lady Pole, and of course the “gentleman with thistle-down hair”, who must be one of the most brilliant and chilling portrayals of faerie with his casual, inhuman cruelty.
I also love this book for the world it creates. I cannot read it without wishing that Susanna Clarke’s alternate history is our history, and that there really once was a Raven King of Northern England (who might one day return) and that all the books on English magic that Clarke cites in her copious footnotes (I love the footnotes) really did exist. And then there is (of course) the magic. Although it appears at the beginning to be a magic that is learned only by studying dusty old books (that is, if Mr. Norrell will let you see them), eventually we come to realize that it is much more than that. Clarke’s magic is a magic that is written in the very stones, hills, trees, and rain of England itself, a magic that can be discovered by anyone, if only they can understand it:
“Magic shall be written upon the sky by the rain but they shall not be able to read it;
Magic shall be written on the faces of the stony hills but their minds shall not be able to contain it;
In winter the barren trees shall be a black writing but they shall not understand it…”
And finally, I love the ending. Without giving away any spoilers, I shall say that the ending of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the kind of ending I like best. It does not wrap everything up neatly. It is not perfectly happy. It leaves you wondering what will happen next, and what will your favourite characters do now? It is the kind of ending that leaves you longing to know more and constantly replaying your favourite scenes over and over in your head, because even after reading 1000 or so pages, you still haven’t had enough.
I do not expect that everyone will love this book as much as I do. It is long, but I like long novels, because I don’t finish them so quickly that way. Some have complained that the first part of the book, before Jonathan Strange appears, is rather slow, but I don’t find it that way. But if you like books about magic, books, magicians, prophecies, nineteenth-century England, abductions by fairies, friendship, love, betrayal, and madness, complete with footnotes and an appearance by Lord Byron, then you might at least like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. And regardless of whether you do or not, it is still one of my favourite novels.