Just a few days before flying to Malaysia I bought and read, in three days, Susanna Clarke’s 800-page debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (see Amazon.com). Where to begin? Well, let me start with the back cover blurb. Basically it talks about the two magicians who appear in England to revive English magic. It talks about Mr Norrell as a reclusive scholar-type with an aversion to hazardous forms of magic. And of Jonathan Strange as a wild magician almost on the brink, one who is ready to try anything to gain fame and power.
It couldn’t be more wrong.
‘Two magicians will appear in England. One will fear me. The other will long to behold me.’ – prophecy by the Raven King, from back cover
Only someone who has read the book can understand how much the characters have been misinterpreted by the marketers. In the book, Mr Norrell has an aversion to any type of publicity and a dislike for any magic he didn’t personally sanction. Clarke writes of him destroying would-be magicians by forbidding them from performing magic, and censoring any writings on magic – even going as far as to magically vanish books of magic right out of people’s homes to keep the public from reading them.
Strange on the other hand is presented as a very likeable character, a gentleman to the bone. Here’s something I roughly remember from the book:
‘Wellington asked Strange, “Could a magician kill people with magic?”
‘Strange frowned. “I suppose a magician could. But a gentleman never would.” ’
Strange is blessed with an unparalleled talent for magic. He discovers magic as a profession quite by accident (seemingly). Unbelieving, he goes with the flow and discovers that things happen at his command that have not happened for hundreds of years. He comes into contact with, and works with, Norrell. Yet the world he enters is unexplored and disquieting, unlike Norrell’s world of ‘safe English magic’. Strange has premonitions of things going on that are just beyond his level of awareness.
Things continue. Both magicians grow in power and renown, Strange more so than Norrell, because of his willingness to aid his country’s war machine abroad. He practices magic on very large scales – rearranging the Spanish countryside.
After the war his wife dies in very mysterious and troubling circumstances. He is a broken man, although he tries not to show it very much. All he has left is magic. And the magic is growing stronger within him every day, as he immerses himself within it. He picks up more strange vibes, premonitions, insights. He goes to Venice and finds it, too, steeped in magic. In Venice Clarke describes one of the most memorable scenes I’ve ever read in a book. It involves trees, lots of trees. Read the book!
Strange discovers that his wife is not dead, but has been enchanted away by a suave, fun-loving and cruel fairy. After this, he throws all caution to the wind and distills all the knowledge he has gained in his years as a magician into a way to access the fairy country, Faerie. He uses madness, his own madness, as a tool to contact ‘the gentleman’, as the fairy is called. So desperate, and yet hanging on by a thread, he manages to save his wife, and at the same time, with Norrell’s help, revive English magic – as part of a spell worked long ago by the Raven King himself.
In the end, the eye of the beholder beholds the eye of the beheld. But you have to read the book to understand this!
He doesn’t emerge unscathed – the conflict leaves him literally in eternal night, which he and Norrell carry with them wherever they go. Clarke ends the book on an open note, as if indicating more adventures (and hopefully more books) to come.
One recurring theme I noticed in the book was the English’s unwillingness to accept magical causes for something, even though they know that magic is possible and even likely with Strange and Norrell having opened the doors to it. Strange himself is guilty of this before his wife dies. I think her death teaches him a lesson – if anything that could be explained at all by magic, it probably is magic. Cruel way to learn, and cruel lesson, but this is not an innocent book.