Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

House of Leaves put me in the mood for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I can’t account for because they are two wildly dissimilar books.  House of Leaves is terribly modern and American and all sort of up in your face, and Jonathan Strange is set in early nineteenth-century England (alternate England, but still) and is much with the fairies and book-learning and wry gentility.  Anyway I fetched out my convenient three-volume box set of paperbacks, and I read it starting in 2009 and finished in 2010.  There should really be a word for a book you start one year and finish the next year so go invent one!

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is all about magic coming back to England.  In the Napoleonic War times, it is widely known that there are no practical magicians in England at all, only theoretical ones who read about magic in books and don’t do any themselves.  Except that a practical magician turns up hoarding books in Yorkshire, a selfish, querulous old man called Mr. Norrell who is determined to bring magic back to England.  Good magic, which in Mr. Norrell’s opinions means nothing to do with the fairy realms and absolutely nothing to do with England’s magical, legendary king, John Uskglass.  Then a wealthy, idle young man called Jonathan Strange, in an attempt to impress the girl he wishes to marry, decides to be a magician too (and is good at it – calling him wealthy and idle gives the wrong idea about his magical abilities).  Things go on from there.  They help to defeat the French by using magic.  A slave called Stephen is helped (or persecuted) by a mysterious fairy gentleman with thistle-down hair.

The nice thing about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is it’s long?   But you don’t have to feel daunted by it, because you can probably tell in about five chapters whether it’s your sort of book or not; if not, you can stop reading; if it is, then hooray, there’s tons of it ahead!  The first five chapters – the first chapter by itself, really – gives you an excellent idea of how the book is going to go.  Some drastic things happen, but not without a lot of explanation; there are a lot of footnotes; the writing is amusing but probably won’t make you laugh out loud.  I knew straight away I was going to love it.  The footnotes don’t tend to be germane to the story, but they’re full of backstory and – I don’t know, sidestory? – and tidbits from the history of this alternate England.

I read this in early 2006, and since then I managed to forget nearly every significant plot point.  I remembered Jonathan Strange going off and becoming Wellington’s useful magician; I remembered the business with Lady Pole’s finger; I remembered whole sentences verbatim that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair says to Stephen Black.  But I had it in my mind that Childermass was the Raven King all along, and that Mr. Norrell ended up going to live with the King of England, and I’d completely forgotten whole plotlines (like the Greysteels – they showed up and I was all, who are these fools?).  Reading it again was like reading it for the first time.  A perfect book for the holidays.