'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke

Everyone will happily quote the old adage about not judging a book by its cover, but there’s no equivalent saying about size. “Good things come in small packages” just doesn’t apply to books, and I know many people - myself included - who will happily immerse themselves in Lord of the Rings, or something equally monolithic, rather than pick up a slimmer volume. I don’t know what led me to avoid Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for so long, but I’d eyeballed it on shop shelves before and had left it alone. Finally picking up my wife’s copy earlier this year felt like a heavy commitment, but it soon justified itself. This is a wonderfully written book, crammed full of detail, and very compelling.

Opening in 1806, and spanning the ten years that follow, the book follows the rise to fame of the two titular magicians, their approaches to the practice of magic, and the trials of their professional relationship. It’s split into three parts, the first being chiefly concerned with Mr Norrell, a reclusive Yorkshireman who’s dedicated decades of his life to the study of magic.

Far from being the warm and charismatic figure you - and, indeed, the characters of the novel - might expect, Norrell is a deeply flawed individual. He’s stubborn and miserly, eager to bring about the ‘return of English magic’ but loath to concede any of his own secrets, and he resists any of the more fanciful (and, it transpires, dangerous) elements of magic: the summoning of faerie servants, channelling of magic into objects, and so forth. He’s almost reluctant to come out of hiding, and is uncomfortable when he does, compelled mostly by a sense of duty to his country (and the rest of the way by his ego). Despite all this, he’s a very readable character - Clarke does a wonderful job of making him sympathetic and understandable.

Jonathan Strange, when he enters the narrative, is every bit the young and charismatic talent we were disappointed not to find in Norrell. He comes to magic almost by accident, but instantly has a knack for it and - in contrast with the conservative Norrell - has less regard for the rules. When their paths cross, in the novel’s second act, you expect them to clash instantly; but Clarke has grand designs for these characters, and together they use magic to aid the English forces in the Napoleonic wars. I won’t tell you anything about the third section of the book here; Clarke is a magician in her own field, and I don’t want to reveal any of her secrets.

The whole book is written in a style that pays homage to English classics - comparisons with Austen and Dickens have rightly been drawn - and stays true to it throughout. One warning, though: this is not a fast-paced read, and not simply because of the page-count. Events move along at a gradual pace, particularly as the two magicians adjust to socialite life in 19th century London, and there are footnotes and asides everywhere, mostly explaining magical folklore and elaborating on the experiences of minor characters. The book has more in common with historical accounts than it does with the modern ‘page-turner’, but don’t let that put you off. Clarke’s re-writing of the past is masterful, and the details are an absolute joy to read.

If you’re a patient reader looking for a long and captivating read, wait until the days grow short and the nights draw in, and give this one a go.

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