Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
By Susanna Clarke
IT USED to be that fantasy fiction was for dweebs. Now, thanks to Harry Potter, Peter Jackson and a funny sounding Welshman named Jasper Fforde and his heroine Thursday Next, everyone reads these books - mothers, businessmen, lawyers and sullen teenagers alike.
This is a good development for two reasons. First, readers are beginning to remember how fun a book can be. Second, it increases the chances that people will pick up a copy of Susanna Clarke’s extraordinary debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
If Harry Potter is the kind book that makes you wish to be a youngster again, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the sort that will make you realise being an adult needn’t be quite so dull. Narrating in a wry, amused off-stage voice, Clarke effortlessly conjures the faraway world of Regency England - a time when performing magic made one the life of a party, a man about town.
At the centre of this status-obsessed society is a curmudgeonly scholar and book hoarder named Gilbert Norrell. He gets mouths flapping in London when, in an effort to restore respect to the lost art of true magic - which has been reduced to sleight of hand and parlour tricks - he casts a spell causing a church’s gargoyles to cry out and dance.
Norrell enjoys the acclaim he receives for this and other stunts, but there’s a hitch. He wants to promote magic yet remain its only practitioner. When he hears of magic being practised, he snuffs out his competition like Bill Gates going after a new software company. This avaricious but oddly likeable fellow even buys up all the magic books in England and hoards them in his library so that only he will have access to them. Bibliophiles everywhere will recognise the creeping vine of their own obsessions in this funny little man and the books he simply cannot give out on loan.
Just when it seems Mr Norrell has in fact vanquished all other magicians, a street performer prophesies that another one will rise up and become just as famous as Norrell. "Strange was everyone’s idea of what a magician ought to be," Clarke writes by way of introduction. "He was tall; he was charming; he had a most ironical smile." And so we meet Jonathan Strange. Sensing he has more to gain by joining forces with this young man than opposing him, Norrell puts Strange under his thumb - or so he thinks - and makes him a pupil.
Thus, an amusing, handsome, and good-humoured man from northern England begins to learn magic from the most famous magician in the entire world. It’s a bit like watching David Blaine crib notes from Merlin.
Fantasy fiction has always fought an uphill battle in getting readers to relax and indulge the improbable. Like so many first-rate fantasists before, from Kafka to Neil Gaiman - whose work this novel emulates then raises a notch - Clarke accomplishes this feat by using realism’s toolbox every step of the way. Every dozen pages or more a coy footnote gives readers some background on the history of magic in Norrell’s England. There are notes about the Raven King - a shadowy, evil magician who once ruled over both faerie and human worlds. There are notes citing a fictional biography of Jonathan Strange. There are even notes validating where certain paintings hung in Norrell’s home.
The result of all this pseudo-documentation means that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will have even the most sceptical reader suspending disbelief. After this occurs, the book becomes a kind of literary black hole. Unless you pause for an emergency bathroom break, it will devour your entire weekend and take a nibble off Monday, too. Returning to the real world afterwards is a letdown.
Many readers will emerge from this book blinking and forlorn, suffering a most poignant loss. I even know one reader who was incapable of dealing with the world of what now seemed like inferior books; so she began reading the book again immediately and is enjoying it more the second time.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is not simply just a good read, though. There are plenty of those published each year, and mainstream literary writers who have tried to moonlight in the genre have realised how hard it is. Its selling point is the tension between Strange and Norrell. On the one hand, we have this small, slight, nervous little man who wants magic to be his and his alone; on the other, there is this much more likeable fellow who wants to share it with the world.
The more Strange’s abilities grow, the greater is his difference with Norrell - yet they are bound by their faith in magic. At their relationship’s nadir, Norrell even tries to cast a spell to find his former friend, but the gulf is simply too big. It’s a testament to this book’s unusual ability to straddle fantasy and literary realms that this moment creates a real knot of emotion in the reader’s chest. Like Dickens, Clarke is a word-drunk image-maker who populates her canvas with a bevy of colourful characters. This book has faeries and scheming assistants; a pair of flamboyant servants who help around Norrell’s home and who give the household a nifty bit of homo-eroticism.
Even though this is a long book, it is a lean one. Clarke relishes rich and amusing descriptions but they are not flabby ones. What a joy it is to watch someone enter the room, for Clarke dispatches everyone with a crisp and amusing introduction. One man is a very tall, thin fellow who sways so much when he gets nervous that he takes on "the appearance of a silver-birch tree in a high wind". In another extraordinary scene, a man enters a room to see an old woman, who is surrounded by 50 very quiet cats. "The silence of half a hundred cats is a peculiar thing," says the narrator, "like fifty individual silences all piled on top of another."
If you are a reader of fantasy, some developments here will not surprise you. Of course Strange outgrows his master; of course he in turn becomes dangerously fascinated with the Raven King. Still, it’s not where this book goes but how cleverly it gets there which makes it such a joy to read.
Indeed, by combining fantasy elements with social commentary, it strings an unusual footbridge between JRR Tolkien and Jane Austen - or more accurately, Wilkie Collins with Philip Pullman. It also gives Potterites who have outgrown Hogwarts a new school to attend. I’d put down money that Clarke will be flooded with applicants soon enough.