I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get round to this one. I’m often late to the party and the fact that I only read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (JS&MN) by Susanna Clarke (2004) in 2021 is proof of this. Clarke’s debut fantasy novel divides readers between those who loved it and those who couldn’t finish it. Fact: like many fantasy books, it’s long. Clarke takes her time with the story, often stopping to admire the scenery or to enjoy the dialogue between characters. I must admit I was almost halfway through before I became invested in the story but the interesting characters and unusual magical world, set in the nineteenth century England, kept me intrigued enough to keep going. By the time I finished, I was part of the fan club.
1806. England’s in the middle of the Napoleonic war and practical magic has long faded from people’s memories. Magicians study magic from a theoretical perspective. That is until Mr Norrell performs an act of magic that stuns his countrymen. The shy and awkward Mr Norrell decides it’s time to come out of his long recluse and move to London. He aims to bring magic back to England and he is eager to assist the English government during the war. With some pressure from his friends, Mr Norrell’s persuaded to raise a beautiful young woman from the dead to win the favour of London’s high society… An act with far-reaching and unforeseen consequences. Then, a second (practical) magician, Jonathan Strange, appears on the scene. He’s Mr Norrell’s opposite in every way. Will they be allies or enemies? Then there’s the prophecy… And the unusual things happening in England. Magic is in the air but it’s not what Mr Norrell or Johnathan Strange thought it would be.
Here are 5 reasons why I think you should read Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell:
- It’s fantasy but it’s different. I read Piranesi, also by Clarke, earlier this year and the first thing that struck me was that it was unlike anything else I’ve read lately. She also recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her second novel! She was clearly inspired by other stories and history but her unique writing style and the sheer magic of her imagination is a unique combination. I feel exactly the same about JS&MN. Even after having read Piranesi, JS&MN caught me off guard (in a good way) with its unique premise and Clarke’s dry and winding style.
- It has a strong sense of place. The British landscape, especially London and the rural north, come to life in the gothic tradition. Clarke taps into the landscape’s history, lore and mysteries to create a setting that’s often stark and bitter, full of foreboding. It’s also beautiful. The scenes describing the landscape and parallel faerie landscapes were some of the most striking in the book and the images it evoked will stay with me for a long time.
- Unique characters. Clarke created an interesting cast of characters whose dynamics kept the story moving forward, albeit slowly. I thought the characters were far from simplified caricatures despite the exaggeration of certain personality traits. Complexities and internal struggles develop throughout the narrative and I often didn’t like the main characters all of the time. Other characters stirred my sympathy or my anger in a way fictional characters had not done in a long time.
- It’s a very British book. The book never pretends to be anything else and this can either be a positive or negative experience to a reader. But Clarke’s novel is consciously British and her dry humour most often pokes fun at British culture and society. British culture and history have a strong presence in the western world and non-British readers will be able to relate to, or at least recognise, the landscape, history, and social dynamics portrayed by Clarke. I thought her ‘alternative history’ was an interesting approach and the well-defined British framework worked well for a fantasy story.
- It’s magical. JS&MN really is “dazzling” as described by the Sunday Times on the cover of the book. The magic and wonder of JS&MN are cleverly interwoven with historic events and many famous figures make an appearance, like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron. Humans’ fascination with magic is explored in all its naivety, beauty, strangeness, and darkness.
I gave you 5 reasons why I think you should read this book, but there’s something you should know before you start. It’s long. Fantasy books often are, but I thought Clarke’s book gained some extra pages in other ways. The book is filled with numerous footnotes. This adds some bulk to the story and I thought some contributed more than others to my enjoyment. It worked with the style of the book, which often feels a little scholarly in places, but some broke the pace of the narrative. There were also some scenes and passages of dialogue I thought the story could easily have done without.
In conclusion: I enjoyed this book but it might not be for every fantasy reader. Fantasy fanatics who are eager to read something a little different, including those with an interest in British culture and history, might find this a very enjoyable read. If you are still undecided, I would like to encourage you to take a risk and travel the many wandering paths Clarke weaves in this highly original book.