So there’s this book called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, written by a woman named Susanna Clarke.
You should read it.
Like, as soon as possible.*
This book is a no-joke classic, the BBC is gearing up for an adaptation, and it’s just generally the sort of thing you’d be better off having in your life. If I’ve convinced you, make haste to your nearest bookseller. Those of you who have objections to a four-word review, meet me after the jump.
Objection: What is this book even about?
Well, it starts by following The Learned Society of York Magicians, a group of the most prominent magicians in England. Lest you think this means anything magical or fantastic happens around these guys, let’s set the record straight: These are theoretical magicians. They don’t practice magic. They merely study it in books and occasionally argue.
If this sounds like a tedious group of fellows to be around, that’s because it is. Fortunately, Susanna Clarke is a hell of a writer; she juggles the stuffy Victorian setting and the seething emotions underneath without ever dropping a ball. With her at the helm, tedium becomes a blast to read and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Anyway, the first of the two title characters we meet is Mr Norrell, a grumpy, nebbishy magician living out in the countryside. Rumor has it that his personal library is beyond compare — books OF magic, not just ABOUT magic! — but even more intriguingly, it seems that Mr Norrell might be an actual practicing (or “practising,” as this book loves its nonstandard spellings) magician.
The Learned Society contacts Norrell, requesting a display of his magical powers. I’d be telling too much if I shared the details, but let’s just leave it having said that Norrell is more than up to the task. After a successful public display of his abilities, he slowly begins bringing practical magic back to England. Though habitually a loner, Norrell isn’t alone. His motley crew of socialites and assistants helps navigate the muddy waters of politics and society, though he occasionally finds himself in danger of drowning.
As magic begins to return to England, a young, mysterious man named Jonathan Strange eventually hears about this new magician and his desire to reinstate real magic. You can tell by the title of the book that things are gonna get interesting… but as with Norrell’s magic, the less said about Strange, the better.
Sorry for being so vague, but part of the brilliance of this particular book is the way that you’ll find yourself wondering when the plot is about to start, only to turn the page and realize that it’s actually been chugging along the whole time you’ve been reading and suddenly you’re somewhere else entirely and things are very bizarre indeed. The story feels pretty slight for a while, given the subject matter, but by the time you reach the back cover things are impossibly far from where they started.
Objection: Speaking of that, isn’t this book like, really friggin’ long or something?
Absolutely. JS&MN is a brick, coming in at around 800 pages. Thankfully, Clarke’s prose is a delight to read. Like I said, even her tedium is fun to read. This is the kind of book you can get lost in, even when there isn’t magic happening. And when the magic does happen… I’m telling you, Clarke is the real deal.
A note to Classic Lit fans: The most common point of reference reviewers have mentioned for the prose is a combination of Dickens and Austen.
Oh, and there are dozens of footnotes scattered along the bottoms of the pages of the story. Don’t skip even one of them, because they’re just as funny as the rest of the book, and many of them hint at stories that could easily take up another novella or two on their own.
Objection: I’ve heard that nothing happens in this book!
I’ve heard that, too. The most common complaints about this book are that nothing happens and the pacing is too slow. Personally, I think that “nothing happening” isn’t really accurate at all, but even if it is, it’s rare to find such entertaining “nothing” in a book like this. There are relative lulls, sure, but Clarke uses the downtime to flesh out the alternate history of the world, learn about the characters, or simply enjoy the weird beauty of London and magic.
Let me put this another way: If you survived doing yoga in the latest GTA game, you can survive a couple paragraphs to hear a tangent about a magical historian.
Like I’ve said, there’s a lot of book to deal with here. Emphasizing JS&MN’s readability seems important because when you go to buy this book tomorrow, it’s entirely possible that the 800-page demands it makes of you will be a bit daunting. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that I wish it were much longer.
Objection: Eh, I’m not convinced.
Still? Well, what if I told you that it has one of the most intriguing, genuinely magical magic systems I’ve ever seen?
What if I promised that the scope of this book is just remarkable, and that it effortlessly articulates an entirely new version of 1800s Europe that is just a joy to explore?
Objection: Yea — Eh, actually, still no.
I was worried it would come to this. I really wanted to convince you guys, questionable taste in movies and all. But okay. You want to hear it from someone who’s an actual authority on modern fantasy literature, and who you (hopefully) are a fan of already?
Neil, plays us out.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.” -Neil Gaiman
*It’s entirely possible that I’m the last to hear about this book, published almost ten years ago, but seeing as I have yet to actually meet somebody who’s read it, I’m gonna spread the word just in case.