JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL
By Susana Clark
Originally published 2004
Why is it I have books in my library that are nearly a decade old and I’ve yet to read them? Now a devoted book reader will understand that conundrum all too well. You see, it is virtually impossible for me to visit a bookstore and leave without buying something; even if I’ve already way too many books at home to get to. None of that concerns me. The only fact that matters is I’ve found a title that intrigues me and so I buy it, take it home and, as mentioned above, stick it on the shelf until the time I choose to read it. Trust me, book lovers around the world do this all the time. It is nothing unusual for us bibliophiles.
Of course there is another element that needs to be taken into consideration when reflecting on this topic of “when” a certain title will get read. You see, I am a slow reader and never-ever worry about how long it takes me to get through the any title. With any normal book of two to three hundred pages, I can expect to finish them in one week and this allows me to post a new book review here every week. But that all goes out the window with books that are way-way bigger than the norm. Knowing those will eat up weeks of my allotted reading time; I tend to put off picking them up until something out of the ordinary spurs me to do so. Such was the case with this particular book, which, according to the interior data was first released to public in 2004. This being the paperback edition, it has been sitting on my bookshelf for seven to eight years now.
What was that extra prompt that made me finally open it up? Answer; recently having learned that BBC Television is going to produce it as a mini-series. Intrigued by that revelation, there was no way I wanted to end up watching this series and not have read the source material. Thus four weeks ago I packed it away in my traveling bag and took it with me to the Windy City Pulp & Paper convention. At the airport I began the long journey through Susanna Clarke’s 1006 pages of delightful fantasy adventure and just now have put it down, finished.
In the late 1800s Britain is without any practicing magicians though we are told the country once had a rich tradition of such practitioners. Alas, with the passage of time, they fell out of grace with the general public who, in their fickle nature, turned their interest and attention to the wonders of modern science. No longer were spells and potions sought after and soon the transparent roadways that led to the fairy kingdoms became overgrown with brush until their very existence became a thing of myth and legend. Magic was a thing of the past.
So it would have remained save for the appearance of a quiet recluse named Mr. Norrell who one day makes his presence known claiming to be the only remaining magician in all of England. When others dare to challenge his claim, Norrell suggest a test by which he will prove his ability to create something miraculous. If he succeeds all other so called theoretical magicians must end their studies of the occult forever. Needless to say Norrell is most successful making all the stone statues of a church come to life and start talking to the assembly gathered there. The event propels Norrell to instant fame and he moves from his rural home to London along with his manservant. There he is soon the most sought after celebrity in the city. But at heart, Norrell is still a recluse and would prefer to remain at home studying in his vast library of magical lore.
When he ill advisedly resurrects a young woman who died days before her wedding to a British Lord of Parliament. Norrell has to call upon a cruel and sadistic fairy that exacts a wicked price for his assistance in reviving the maid, though ironically Norrell remains totally aloof to the tragedy he has created.
The book’s plot then picks up pace with the introduction of Jonathan Strange, a shy, introverted young nobleman who, on a whim, decides to take up magic as a livelihood. Much to his surprise, and everyone else, Strange discovers he actually possesses the skills to do magic and is soon weaving various spells to the amusement and delight of his friends and fiancé, Arabella. When Mr. Norrell learns there is another practicing magician in England he feels threatened, worried that the lad will upset the comfortable lifestyle he has carefully constructed for himself. But when the two meet, Norrell is charmed by Strange’s naïve personality and takes him on as his student shortly after Jonathan and Arabella marry.
At the heart of the book’s conflict is the evil fairy who, upon rediscovering his ability to cross from his world to ours, sets about kidnapping the souls of innocent people he takes a fancy to, keeping them his spiritual prisoners. Ultimately he sets his sights on Arabella and goes as far as to fake her death so that he may keep her forever in his fantasy land. But the foul creature had not counted on Jonathan Strange keen intellect and stubbornness; his refusal to let any puzzle go unsolved. In the end it is Strange who unravels the evil fairy’s schemes and sets about confronting him, human magic versus fairy magic.
Please understand, there is a whole lot more that happens in this whopping tome and covering every subplot and character would require me to write a book-long review. Suffice it to say “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” is a grand fantasy adventure that will demand a reader’s willingness to sacrifice hour upon hour of his or her time but the rewards will be proportional as it is a fantastically brilliant novel that is so well imagined that by its conclusion, I was sincerely sad to see it come to a close. Though it does so in one of the most touching and loving scenes ever put to paper.
One of the major characters asks Strange, should they become separated for whatever reason, how are they to remember him. He answers, “Think of me with my nose in a book.” 1006 pages to reach that line and my eyes watered as I added, “Amen.”
Review – Epilogue
During this time, wanting to keep this column active, I was saved by the contributions of several dear friends who offered to submit as “guest reviewers.” My humble and deep thanks to Nancy Hansen, Todd Jones and Derrick Ferguson for their marvelous reviews.