Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was originally pitched to me as ‘Harry Potter for adults’. Now as far as I’m concerned (as a 23-year-old who grew up with and has a deep (and totally appropriate) love of all things Hogwarts) Harry Potter can be very much for adults! That aside, this description of Susanna Clarke’s debut novel intrigued me purchase a copy I did.
On opening the cover and diving into the first few pages I quickly realised that to simplify JSMN to ‘Harry Potter for adults’ is to undersell Susanna Clarke’s fabulous novel. The two stories are equally brilliant but polar opposites in terms of style and content. Where both Clarke and Rowling plant magic effortlessly within the ‘human’ realm, the world of JSMN concentrates on gentleman magicians instead of wizards and in the place of wands and potions there are books and theories.
Set in 19th century England we are slowly drawn into Clarke’s version of reality, focussing on England’s magical history and the re-emergence of the practising magician in society. We follow magic from the depths of Yorkshire to London’s high society and even out into the battlefield of the Napoleonic wars! Even though there are no quests for magical objects or mythical creatures, Clarke’s clever and subtle portrayal of the two remaining magicians of the ‘Modern Age’ and their struggle is still intensely entertaining.
With over 950 pages to its name, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an absolute beast of a book and can be intimidating at first. However, once started it doesn’t take long to become infatuated with the classic beauty and quiet humour of this tale. It is quite a gentle and understated novel – definitely not for those who want a quick magical drama to fill a couple of hours! The drama is detailed and built-up slowly rather than immediate, and for me this authenticated the ambience and tensions of 19th century England and offered a different kind of literary gratification.
Written in the impartial third person, one may be forgiven for believing the events portrayed as being historical fact, such is the authority of the narrative voice. JSMN is a mixing pot of social commentary, meticulously researched historical context and the fantastical – all done without the complexities of convolution! Clarke also revolutionises the use of footnotes in fiction to dazzling effect. Far from distracting, these whimsical additions (sometimes page-long) added depth, humour, history and clarity to a novel embroiled in the mystical – the author’s own ingenious magic trick of playing with reality in fiction.
I recently recommended JSMN to my best friend and upon completing it he commented that though he enjoyed it on the whole, there weren’t any likable characters. And I can kind of see his point when it comes to the protagonists, as they are ultimately inherently selfish men stuck in their own ideas, driven by competition and glory. Nonetheless, these characteristics have made Strange and Norrell incredibly interesting. Clarke has deliberately made them flawed so that their fallibility is what decides not only their fate but the fates of those who surrounding them.
With the settings of Dickens, the accessibility of Austen and Clarke’s unique narrative styling, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an absolute treat of a book, one to treasure, re-read and adore for a long time to come – I just hope the future BBC television adaptation can live up to the original text.