Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

Have you ever picked up a book and found it completely and utterly unlike what you expected it to be? You probably have; there’s a reason “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” is such an ubiquitous expression. That’s one of those magical things about picking up an unfamiliar book, you never know quite where it’s going to take you. Film seems to have lost that to a great degree, it has traded it away in a desperate clawing for attention. By the time a new movie comes out it feels almost like you’ve watched it already. Not so with books. Books remain, to a large extent, mysterious. They unfold apace to the reader’s progress, unavailing their secrets in slow succession, dancing on in a whirl of color and seduction and always whispering what’s next?Read on, read on!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for years now, waiting to be read. I think I must have picked it up at a clearance event or a library book-sale and lost it in a stack of acquisitions. Who knows? I have no memory of how it came into my possession, only that it has been there some while, waiting quite patiently. And it is rather an intimidating presence, weighing in at the quite hefty sum of nearly 900 pages. At long last, however, I took the plunge.

And what did I find? Well now.

At first, I was quite disappointed. I’d been expecting a novel in the vein of Dan Smith’s Drood or Sarah Water’s Affinity, two remarkably powerful novels set in about the same time period as Susanna Clarke’s book. Those two books have a grit and edge to them, they’re books which transport the reader directly and viscerally to an age only on the brink of sanitation. They reek and stink of humanity. Clarke’s novel, on the other hand, couldn’t be further from that. It’s a mannered story, told quite properly and occasionally stiffly. The big leap which one must first make when reading this novel is to realize is not so much set in the time period to which Austin and Dickens belong, but that it is set in the world of their books. By which I mean to say, it is not a book set in history, but rather set in the idea of a time period.

It’s not my favorite choice, as I like a certain amount of grime and stench in my fiction, but it did eventually win me over by virtue of utter commitment. Swear words are censured in the fashion of the time; i.e. “D—!” for damn, and so on. The book is rife with footnotes containing little asides and factoids and a great many little micro stories within the framework of the larger story.

And what is that larger story? It’s a story – and a book – about the power and magic of books. In this case, the power and magic are quite literal. The England of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an England once ruled by a fairy king, an England with a rich history of magic and magicians, and an England in which magic has very nearly vanished. The story concerns the return of magic to England, first by Mr Norrell alone, and then with the help of his pupil Jonathan Strange.

It’s a baggy and rambling story, skittering from sub-plot to sub-plot with reckless abandon. Traditional plot structure is done away with here in favor of a shapeless mass of clustered plot points. At the best of times, the whirl of events takes on quite an intoxicating power that has the effect of drawing one headlong and recklessly into the story, making this one of the fastest reading 900 page novels I’ve ever picked up. At its worst, however, Clarke’s novel reads like a collection of disjointed babble, fragments of cloying pastiche. For the most part, however, the novel works.

Unfortunately, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is not a book which puts it’s best foot forward. Sadly, it chooses to put the very worst of it’s many feet to the fore. I very seriously considered giving up the attempt at least a dozen times before finally coming out of those first 200 interminable pages. The fact that I didn’t speaks quite highly of the hopes I had for this story. Hopes which were, I must say, eventually fulfilled. It wasn’t quite as bad as The Doomsday Book, but it was rather a poor start. If you find yourself flagging at any point in that first half, take my word on this: it gets better. Thus for our LGBT youth, thus for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

So, while I did come in the end to appreciate Clarke’s novel for what it is, I would be remiss in the extreme were I to neglect to mention how very many frustrating missed opportunities arise over the course of this novel. My biggest complaint about the thing was that it was so very stodgy and gentleman centered. Female characters exist in this universe as motivation for male characters, and little else. They are desired, they are captured and rescued, they have magic practiced upon them, and they stand prettily by and make polite comments. They do not, however, have any active role. Now, it’s not as though this came about accidentally. That would be forgivable; it is, after all, perfectly acceptable to have a book focused on male characters, even to the point of exclusively. However, Clarke drops dozens and dozens of hints throughout the course of the story regarding the possibility of female magicians. It even becomes a point of contention between Norrell and Strange. And yet it is never manifested in any characters. I’m not knocking the book because it fails as feminist polemic, but I can’t help but wonder why the author would go so far out of her way to keep her female characters removed from the action of the novel. It seems far too purposeful to have come about accidentally, though I can’t imagine a reason.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I was expecting a masterful epic. What I found, rather, was a delightful curio. Adjust your expectations accordingly, and you’ll probably have rather a jolly time of it. It’s a cracking jaunt once you break into the thing.

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