It has been long, far too long since I have last posted a review on here. I have enjoyed quite a few books in the meantime, and drafted half-reviews I never got round to finish… That’s laziness for you guys. But I have finally come across a book I felt a urge to discuss. A masterpiece I needed to rave about at lengths. It was published more than sixteen years ago to great acclaim. I did not know anything about it, but once I caught a glimpse of the Bloomsbury Modern Classics edition I was immediately intrigued. Little did I imagine the wonderful ride I was about to embark on.
“He gave her his heart. She took it and placed it quietly in the pocket of her gown. No one observed what she did.”
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell takes place in 19th century England. Almost. An alternative England that is to say, where magicians exist. Men who command to woods and rivers and faeries, men who summon visions. This magic has been waning though, and no magician has walked English soil for centuries. There are still a few men who dare to call themselves this name, and organise in societies. But all their achievements consist in studying the works of their predecessors. These theoretical magicians read books and argue about them, and they find that a respectable hobby enough. Until… until Mr. Norrell appears. To pull the rug (and the books) under their feet and dwarf them with flamboyant, mouth gaping magic. The sort of magic that involves insuffling life in the inanimate, or bringing the dead back to the living world.
With English magic revived, England sees an opportunity to shine brighter, and more pressingly, to put a end to a dragging war with their French foes, led by the infamous Napoleon Buonaparte. They hail Mr Norrell as their new, if a bit austere hero. Then ,the conceited, mannered man finds himself an unexpected pupil. Bold, talented, and handsome, Jonathan Strange who soons threatens to shake the dull foundations of Mr. Norrell magics, and turn the whole world upside down.
“He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merly waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands.”
I won’t say much about the plot. It is rich, winding. It takes its time, slowing down here and there to explore some dark corners, wonder at the silliness of man, marvel at the uncanny prodigies of the world they live in. Susanna Clarke establishes a whole, meticulously carved out universe. Her narrator is omniscient and witty, a chronicler of the times, who sprinkles her tale with numerous yet extravagant sources.
The act of magic that sets Mr Norrell’s fame has far reaching, first unseen consequences. Clarke fleshes out characters traversed by odd, conflicting currents, hostages of a destiny they have no grasp on. Love, pride and sorrow mingle, a prophecy is to realise, but it will do so in unexpected, tortuous ways.
Clarke’s writing is clear and agreable, sometimes elevating itself in uncanny whirls, setting dark winds and chilling hearts. It gets tender at times, insuffling melancholy. A whole romantic England springs to life, misty and cold, with lonely hills and forgotten paths.
The characters all stand out in their own right, the well-read, finicky and somewhat petty Mr. Norrell. Sensible Arabella. Dashing, brilliant, but at times careless Mr Strange. The latter excited all my sympathy, I found myself cheering at his success, ranting at his obliviousness, worrying at his pitfalls. Love and ambition set him on a dangerous, exhilarating journey. The servants play an important part too. Loyal and cunning, they are the little hands that know so much, get everything done. A whole cast of monarchs, politicians, military and socialites, human or fairy, complete the tapestry.
“It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.”
I am amazed at the craft and imagination that went into writing such a delightful tale. It is so delicate, even when taking us on dreadful paths. I felt exceedingly happy everytime I went back to it. A few pages at bedtime, a few others in the morning. It spoke to me somehow, this mingling of dark and light, unsettling, dreamlike.
I turned the last page a few weeks ago now, but I still walk about shrouded in its atmosphere, bits of it tugging at my heart. A mantle of magic and longing has settled on my heart. I will forever carry scraps of its enchantment with me.
Read it if you are willing to immerse yourself totally in a world that is familiar and eerie at the same time, if you are patient, if you are in the mood for some extravagant bittersweet, longwinding ballad.
“There is nothing else in magic but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void. There is no creature upon the earth with such potential for magic. Even the least of them may fly straight out of this world and come by chance to the Other Lands. Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King.”
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
This edition first published in September 2017, available here