Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

‘Can a magician kill a man by magic?’ Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. ‘I suppose a magician might,’ he admitted, ‘but a gentleman never would.’

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It is like an eccentric collaboration between Alexander Dumas and Jane Austen if they wrote about magicians, class, racial identity, politics and English magic.

Magic is returning to England and Mr Norrell the only practicing magician left in England is determined he shall decide what kind of magic that shall be. Conservative, civilised and straight out of one of his many books. And then a younger, wilder magician makes himself known and the two men engage in an intense friendship and bitter power struggle.

Susanna Clarke has invited us into an alternative history of England. Mad King George is on the throne and the Napoleonic War rages on but magic has left its footprints all over history. The most striking example of this is the Raven King, a man one magician fears and despises and the other longs to behold. The book is filled with wonderful characters. Ladies, servants, magicians (theoretical and practical), crooks, soldiers, dukes, politicians, poets, gentlemen, kings and fairies and so many more and each stood out with their own peculiarities and vibrancy. Each has their own story and Clarke winds them all together into a gripping and expertly plotted book.

The writing is witty and romantic and eerie. The civilised (more or less) English society is juxtaposed against the wilderness and ancient ways of the other places that hide just out of sight. And the polite society similarly clashes against the darkness and cruelty that can lie in men’s hearts. All the characters are flawed, little cruelties and greed and jealousy but Clarke gives each at least one redeeming quality so that nobody is just a villain in this book. One character I felt a vague dislike for at the start of the book enthralled me more and more throughout as Clarke revealed layers of humour and complexity in him.

The author has liberally used footnotes in the novel to add references to books that have never been written, side stories, notes and biographies. I was unsure of this before I read the book but they are fantastic! They add to the richness and complexity of the story and compliment the illustrations in the book. Both make the novel seem more authentically of the Napoleonic era.

There are also excerpts from academic essays the characters have written, newspaper articles and histories of people who only exist in Clarke’s version of England. All is crucial to the battle of wits throughout the plot and how a review published on magical theory or a book can rival the brutality of war.

I couldn’t put this book down or stop thinking about it. It is over 1000 pages long and I hauled it around everyday (even though my job required I had to carry my bag constantly) just so I could read one more chapter. Susanna Clarke has written a book of short stories that accompany this book. I can’t wait to read them. Or read the sequel…

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