Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

I’m fairly unemotional and not easily moved, but Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of those rare books that has captured my heart and managed to claim a high spot in my favourites list, alongside The Time Traveler’s Wife*, Les Misérables and Animal Farm.

Susanna Clarke is the best bits of authors such as Tolkien, Pratchett, Austen, Gaiman and Rowling all rolled into one – a kind of book geek’s dream team. Her writing style is amazingly lucid and eclectic in the best possible way. As I was reading the book the images flowed so clearly in my mind that I said to Jenny last night “if they ever make a movie out of this, I’m going to die”. Well sound the bells, because I discovered this morning that the movie is scheduled for release in 2010. Every aspect of her writing, from the use of archaic spelling to the thoroughly well-researched depictions of the Napoleanic Wars, is deeply imbued with style and gravitas.

Gilbert Norrell, etching by Portia RosenbergSet in a version of 19th Century England where magic was once prevalent but has subsided with the disappearance of the Raven King, the story revolves around the two eponymous magicians, Norrell and Strange. Norrell is a bookish control freak, obsessed with trying to revive English magic through academic study, whereas Strange is a talented natural magician driven by Norrell’s monopoly on the library of magic books into learning through doing. Working against them both is a malevolent fairy whom Norrell summons during a spell that he casts in a desperate attempt to win influence from the political sphere.

These characters, plus a wonderful supporting cast, all have a rich humanity about them which complements the plot without resorting to stereotypes, and each is attended by an equal measure of success and failure as befits their personalities. Especially sweet is the relationship between Strange and his wife, Arabella.

Jonathan Strange, etching by Portia RosenbergThere are so many more positive things that I could write about this book, but if there is any one criticism that I could make, it is that I wish Clarke or her editor had exercised greater restraint when it came to the liberal use of footnotes. Quite often one will find themselves reading a long, rambling side story footnote which, while intending to enrich the context of the events that are occurring, ends up distracting the reader by breaking the flow of the narrative. Tolkien at least had the courtesy of putting all of his “additional material” into an appendix, and Rowling didn’t bother publishing any of it at all.

Overall, this is a stunning debut novel, and I couldn’t recommend it any more highly.


* Co-incidentally, the edition I have includes an introduction by Audrey Niffenegger

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