BOOK RECOMMENDATION: JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL by SUSANNA CLARKE
Book title: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel Author: Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the debut novel of Susanna Clarke published in 2004. Set in England during the Napoleonic wars, the novel tells the story of the revival of English magic through rival magicians, Mr Norrell, the master and his pupil, Jonathan Strange.
A few years ago, I read a glowing review from Neil Gaiman. He said, “Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years,” he was talking about the debut novel by Susanna Clarke. When you think about fantasy novels written in the last 70 years a few monoliths in the literary canon comes to mind. A novel that could equal or better JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Well you have to at least check it out, right?
NOT THAT KIND OF FANTASY
Fantasy comes in different size and shape. They sometimes even come from different dimensions and universes. And it is wise to put these into consideration before entering.
Susanna Clarke’s magicians for example are not fond of long robes, or flashy costumes, nor do they hold wands or staffs. They call themselves gentlemen-magicians, which in the 1800s means, white, privileged and male. They also belong in an exclusive club. In the tomes of fantastical creatures, they are unique and one of a kind. But like the magicians we know, they are conjurors who use mirrors, smokes, shadows. They use spells and intone incantations. Gentlemen-magicians are great scholars also, and they learn magic from books. They are extremely quarrelsome and competitive. So anyone who expects heroic feats from this book would be disappointed. We would even be amiss to say that our two “protagonists” are “heroes” in any fantastic sense.
In the absence of heroic battles for good and evil though we are presented with a different kind of adventure and set of characters that makes Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell really one of the most unique, if not the finest novel of the fantastic since JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke shows us her prowess in conjuring eerie scenarios. Talking statues, resurrected beauties, and the dead haunting the living in the flesh, faerie roads shrouded in mist and gloom. Her faeries are malevolent and amoral creatures.
At the center of all this is the story of two rival magicians, Mr Norrell, the old recluse and rich magician and his student, young, handsome and energetic Jonathan Strange. And even theirs is a different kind of rivalry. No pointing wands. No streaks of light to smite the other. It is a battle of point of views. For Mr Norrell, magic is something to be controlled and managed. For Jonathan Strange, it is something to be unleashed and explored. And in the fringes of this rivalry are people who have much to say about magic and its proper place. Magic just like science or religion is about politics of power. And this is one of the most compelling contribution of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to the canon of fantasy literature.
As a side note, there is an immense and pleasurable amount of footnote.
If you wish to be enchanted and spirited away into a world that is strange yet familiar, you can’t go wrong with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Susanna Clarke is a master conjuror in her own right. Power and privilege, reason and madness, prophecies and fates, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell wove an alternate history that is nothing short of magical. You may want to read it now before the seven-part tv adaptation hits BBC One this May 2015. The adaptation stars Eddie Marsan as Mr Norrell and Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange. Doctor Who writer Peter harness helms as Executive Producer.