(Previously On) Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Previously On is a feature I run when I haven’t finished a book lately, but I feel you deserve a review anyway. These are old favorites of mine, which I can write about without rereading again.
I pre-ordered this book, sight unseen, in hardcover, when I was in college, on the strength of Neil Gaiman’s glowing recommendation. It was worth it. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my absolute favorite books.
This is absolutely not a book for everyone. It’s long. There are rambling, divergent footnotes. It combines Regency romance sensibilities with war narratives and an approach to magic that’s based more on medieval English folklore than on The Lord of the Rings. There’s a tonal shift three-quarters of the way through that reminds me of nothing so much as Jane Austen writing the adventures of Richard Sharpe. And if you’re like me, that makes this book perfect.
Mr Norrell is a practicing English magician. He actually does magic, which is considered beyond strange by all of his colleagues, who focus on research and analysis. And he is about to make a name for himself – is doing quite a good job, actually, between a spectacular display of living statues and raising a nobleman’s young wife from the dead – when Jonathan Strange appears. Jonathan Strange is also a practicing magician, and what’s more, he is young and handsome and a part of Society, which is not really something Mr Norrell can manage. Of course they will study together, and of course they will be rivals.
I do tend to think of this as really Jonathan’s book. I adore his attempts to make himself useful to the war effort, his rejection by the Navy and eventual adoption by General Wellington. And, of course, his relationship with the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair. (One of my favorite scenes is when Jonathan goes to see about the king’s madness.)
The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair is an excellent example of what I mean by medieval English folkloric magic – he is nothing like an Elf or a modern fairy, but one of those threatening and powerful creatures from The Ballad of Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer whom you only dare refer to as The Good Folk.
I admit to a weakness for the Napoleonic Wars, and rereading Jane Austen or the Sharpe or Aubrey/Maturin series will always lead me in the direction of Jonathan Strange again as well. It is, like those books, an exquisite glimpse at another time. Except, of course, with magic. But I reread this most often at Christmastime, for I always remember the scene with Childermass and the birds on the snow. One year I opted for the audiobook instead, since I didn’t want to carry the book itself around; it is excellent, for those of you who might be as leery as I often am of audiobook narrators.
This is one of those books I would like to recommend to everyone, even though I know there are so many reasons why many people would not like it. I just love it so much, I would like to be able to share that love with everyone. Do you have any books you feel that way about?