Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

With the strong backing of a confident publisher, Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell took the genre world by storm in 2004—and even turned a few literary heads.  Part historical fantasy, part alternative history, a mite sword and sorcery, and a touch Gothic, the lengthy novel won several awards and was reprinted numerous times in its first years on the market.  Imagination ripe, cultural commentary relevant, prose confident and stylish, and historical scope grand, books of such unique quality do not often come along.  The story of magic’s revival in Britain in the middle of the 19th century, it does not return in a form one would expect.  

At the outset of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, magic is thought dead in Britain—a facet of history only the legendary Raven King is said to be able to practice, and even he is commonly held as just an apparition of nightmares.  Quickly it is discovered, however, that a respectable gentleman, Mr. Norrell, has held himself in seclusion and been hoarding magic books for years.  In fact the only known practicing magician (as opposed to the horde of ‘theoretical magicians’ who eternally discuss but never apply their ideas), he is brought to London and introduced to high society as magic’s savior.  

While instructing practical magic in Britain’s capital, Norrell is introduced to a vibrant young gentleman named Jonathan Strange.  Hot blooded and full of radical ideas of how magic might be applied, a line is quickly drawn between apprentice and mentor.  Mr. Norrell far more reserved and taciturn, the dynamics of the two’s relationship propel the story into ever deeper implications of cultural practice and historical relevance.

But the book possesses additional layers, of which two are worth mentioning.  While currying favor amongst the rich and powerful in London, Norrell makes a deal with a fairy—the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair—to satisfy an important personage named Lord Pole.  Raising Pole’s fiancé from the dead, there is a price to pay: half the woman’s life must be spent in the gloom of fairyland, dancing endlessly into the night.  This woman, Emma Pole, and a black servant she meets one evening, Stephen Black, fit seamlessly into the lives of the two magicians, the fairies, and the lords and nobles of London.  More importantly, their social relevance acquires enhanced degrees of significance as the story moves forward, culminating in Clarke's commentary on issues inherent to their positions.

Clarke’s commentary brilliantly subtle, the positions the various characters find themselves at the end of the novel is both a damning and uplifting voice of British culture.  Not an easy feat, the author closes one hand into a fist, aiming it at the ‘stuffy’ and ‘imperial’ aspects of the traditional Albion worldview.  The other she extends palm open, lifting characters like Emma Pole, Stephen Black, and others into a new light—one which shines brightly on their future, yet casts the likes of other important characters into shadow.  The richness of this symbolism is just one more reason for the novel’s greatness.

A lengthy novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been divided and published in three volumes, as well as a single volume.  Clarke feeding out the narrative in arch, subtly substantial, and Dickensian tones (albeit occasionally tongue-in-cheek), the prose, like her two lead characters, is a wonderful example of reserved dynamics.  It is also nicely descriptive.  The bleak ether of fairyland, the haunted forests Strange and Black find themselves in, the machinations of the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, the magic Strange performs while in Spain, and the dark land where some of the characters become trapped are a delight for the imagination.  Those who read the illustrated edition will either be turned off by the juxtaposition or moved deeper into the story by the interior artwork.  Rendered in gothic style, these images, while perhaps not capturing the surface of the novel, certainly speak to one or a few of the currents flowing beneath the story.  Just be prepared to spend a long time moving with this delta; the three volumes are total more than 1,000 pages.

In the end, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is not a book for every fan of genre fiction.  The supernatural elements more thematic than functional, those who approach the book expecting the latest fantasy novel featuring wizards and spells will be wholly disappointed.  Those, however, who delight in twilight hours, the delicacy of fairy, the moods of troubled ego, and allusive culture effortlessly woven into fiction will find everything to love in Clarke’s debut.  Stylistically bright, imaginatively deep, and socially relevant, few works of modern fantasy achieve this degree of literary quality.

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