JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL
by Susanna Clarke
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
It is rare for an author’s debut novel to receive the amount of hype and budget that Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has received. For a public jaded by past overhype of books and films, the amount of hype and comparisons it has received is enough to turn a reader off. If such is the case, the hype will have done an incredible disservice to Clarke’s potential public, for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an incredible, and strange, novel which clearly demonstrates that the potential shown by Clarke’s earlier short stories has been surpassed.
Readers who anticipate a flashy, fast-moving story of magical duels will surely be in for disappointment, but readers who are willing to accept the book for what Clarke has written are in for a savory treat. Clarke takes her time to present a fully realized world with three-dimensional characters and situations. The magic of her world has depth and scope and comes to affect the magicians who wield it as well as those who surround them, whether Strange’s wife Arabella, Norrell’s servant Childermass, or the sycophant Drawlight. Even the least sympathetic of these creations, such as Drawlight and his comrade Lascelle, are intriguing and fully realized. In fact, as the novel progresses, various support characters appear to influence the course of the world more than the title characters.
An interesting aspect of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is that for the majority of the novel, there does not appear to be a plot. The characters have goals and move, more or less, in their direction, but there is no overarching plot. In fact, there are multiple plots which don’t appear as plots until suddenly Clarke begins to tie them together and the reader realizes they were there the entire time. These threads are woven together so skillfully that when Clarke does introduce something which should come as a surprise, the groundwork is so well laid that Clarke’s revelation seems as if it must be obvious, when it only really is in hindsight.
Although the main conflict of the novel is portrayed as being between Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, as the novel progresses it becomes apparent that that conflict is merely a red herring to divert attention from a more insidious, and perhaps interesting, conflict which is occurring. The reintroduction of English magic, as both Strange and Norrell anticipate, is definitely the premise of the book, but neither man is entirely capable of restoring it and even working together there is a legitimate question about their roles.
That Clarke has honed her craft as a novelist is evident with this, her first novel. The writing style is clearly her own and her characters are unique. The various aspect of her book are integrated into a cohesive work which is stunning in the way it ties everything together. As the reader reaches the novel’s denouement, the scope of Clarke’s story and the manner in which she has written it, the magnitude of her skill becomes apparent.
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