They say a book is either good or bad, depending on one’s perspective. This certainly holds true when it comes to Susanna Clarke’s debut novel.
There are two ways of reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell—either as a seminal work of fantasy or as a novel of alternative history, and your enjoyment of the tale depends almost entirely on which of the two genres you prefer more.
The novel is set in an alternate England, where reality and magic seamlessly coexist, but the average English gentleman cares only for theoretical magic, delights in perusing dusty antiquated tomes and present papers upon obscure subjects. All of this, of course, has to go, with the arrival of Gilbert Norrell, one of the first practical magicians since the time of the mythical Raven King, and his gifted pupil, the charismatic Jonathan Strange. They start off as partners, often enlisted in government services, but soon differences and disagreements crop up, prompting the duo to part their ways even as a malicious fairy, ‘the gentleman with thistle-down hair’, plans something deadly.
This is a world where the dead come to life and men walk out of mirrors as naturally as horse-drawn carriages ply the cobblestone streets and soldiers perish fighting in Napoleonic battles. But if you have a taste for fantasy, especially of the high-fantasy sort, and are accustomed to Lord Of The Rings marathons and rereading the Earthsea Cycle or Harry Potter, this may not be the kind of fiction you’re looking for. Yes, there are spells and incantations, mythical creatures and magic balls, statues coming to life and pale women being enchanted—but the fantastical is never the focus, the plot is far from conventional with the roles of archetypal characters often being subverted.
But if instead, you have a taste for alternative history and would greatly enjoy reading about a world where the Duke of Wellington collaborates with a magician to defeat Napoleon or Lord Byron writing poetry, inspired after making the acquaintance of a sorcerer, then Clarke’s novel offers a richly detailed vision of England, suffused with myth and magic. Divided into three parts, with several short chapters, the book’s pastiche language and structure is reminiscent of the serialized Victorian novels of Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray, except of course, with supernatural undertones. If the Classics you read as a child are still your favourite, and if the world of Jane Austen and Wuthering Heights seem the perfect place to be, then this novel at 782 pages is a dangerously compelling read.
In short, this is a historical magic realism novel that re-imagines post-Renaissance England in a more Romantic and Gothic way. In fact, Clarke’s refreshing innovation and experimentation (the novel has several beautiful black and white illustrations) can be viewed as a myth-making attempt, a way of constructing a credible mythology for post-Renaissance England, similar to what Tolkien did to ancient Britain with his Middle Earth world-building, years ago.
Drawing on Arthurian legends, local folklore and myths and combining it with real historical events and characters, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an important landmark in speculative fiction. Read it if you’re up for some unconventional fantasy–for this is a delicacy to be savoured slowly and completely.