Simon Bisson (sbisson) wrote,
Simon Bisson

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A Saturday evening "wet and cold" review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Susanna Clarke's first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a hefty book that's received a lot of hype. But then again, it's a book that many of us have been waiting for for some time. Ten years in the making, Clarke's tale of the return of magic to an early 19th century England is a powerful tale of friendship, loss, and the sacrifices we must make to find our dreams.

If you've read any of Susanna's novellas and short stories, then the style will be familiar - not so much fantasy of manners, but a very mannered approach to the fantastic, reminiscent of novels of the time. Clarke's writing occasionally shows the novel's epistolary roots, studied descriptions feel as if they had flown from a gentleman's quill. Slow, deliberate sentences swell and crest in descriptions of elaborate feats: Mr Norrell teaches statues to speak, Jonathan Strange weaves earth and water at Waterloo. Yet what Clarke is telling here is the story of a friendship, two men driven by the same dream - yet with very different ways of bringing that dream to life. The dream of English magic is a big dream, and sacrifices and deceptions - and their consequences - are the stuff of Susanna's story.

At the start of his revival of English magic Gilbert Norrell is persuaded to undertake a powerful magic, one that requires certain assistances from Faerie. It's a decision that is going to shape the next few years, as he has released something he can't control. Like Ged's shadow in Le Guin's Earthsea, Mr Norrell's inadvertent blunder is one that will affect many lives - condemning some to madness and death. It's the ravelling and unravelling of these consequences that are the engine at the heart of this hefty book, driving Norrell into seclusion, and Strange into the distillation of the essence of madness.

There's a third magician at the heart of the story, a magician we never see. John Uskglass, the Raven King, wove together human magic and fairy powers to create English magic. It's his magic that Strange and Norrell are rediscovering, his magic that they are doing - while one tries to disavow him (while living inside the stones of the Raven King's castle), and the other tries to discover him (with the libraries of wisdom sealed away). If anything the heart of Clarke's novel is the reflection, the refraction, of the Raven King, and the prescient power of his words.

Clarke has delivered a unique new fantasy, a book (complete with footnotes) that feels that it has fallen out of an England that never was, from a history that seems only too real, and only too desirable in today's uncertain world. The nearly 800 pages fly by, leaving you wanting more. Let us hop it doesn't take another 10 years...

Powerful, lyrical fiction. Highly recommended.

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