My rating: 4 stars
If magic was real, what would have history been like? Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke aims to answer that question with some moments of wit and beautiful language. It is an alternative history novel, set in the 19th century, focusing on the restoration of English magic and the role played by the two greatest magicians of that time: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. Magic in England had, for a long time, been limited to the existence of theoretical magicians. However, in York, a group of magic scholars discovers the reclusive Mr Norrell, who astonishes them with his practical magic. He then embarks on a journey to restore magic to England. But another magician, Jonathan Strange, appears in the country, leading to a convoluted relationship between the two.
Norrell is not the most likeable of characters. He is described as someone who thinks himself to be naturally able to achieve greatness, as arrogant and as a perfectionist. Although publicly he is always cautious about using certain types of magic, his desire to see it restored to England and him being the one to do it makes him overstep the limits he before thought best not to cross, like dealing with a dangerous but hilarious fairy. He speaks of a modern type of magic, a kind that is different from the one used during the reign of the Raven King.
While Norrell has difficulty dealing with the public eye, Jonathan Strange, who is also quite sure of himself, becomes well liked by London society, since he is more inclined to do and speak about magic in public. He is also a more daring magician, who is more willing and even eager to try new spells, despite Mr Norrell keeping a lot of information from him. In fact, Norrell seems to want to manage and have the power regarding everything that has to do with English magic.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has more to offer besides magic, though. There are throughout the book many moments of social criticism. The role that characters like Drawlight and Lascelles play in society is used to criticise those who give too much importance to appearances and gossip. Other types of criticism focus on women’s rights, slavery and the differences in treatment related to social class.
The social commentary helps achieve the creation of an alternative history, which has some links to reality. The story takes place during the war against Napoleon and the French Invasions. Real historical people appear as characters (Lord Wellington, King George…), and others are worth a mention, such as the painter Francisco Goya. On the other hand, the story is told in quite a detailed way regarding the historical aspects of magic. The existence of magic fits perfectly with the rest of the story, not seeming disconnected or something impossible.
There are many things to like about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Small details are used to connect different strands of the story, giving a sense of continuity. The appearances of the fairy are darkly hilarious and some of my favourites throughout the book. The descriptions of people and places, which are usually quite detailed, are done by means of visual and suggestive metaphors. The balls at Lost-hope, for example, are described in a painstakingly way that gave me chills. However, the magic done by Strange while in the Peninsula didn’t have the same level of excitement that in other instances.
One of the problems I had with the book is that it has too many footnotes. Although they give the book an historical feeling, some seemed unnecessary for the development of the story and were not that interesting. On the other hand, some events mentioned in the footnotes should have been told in the main text, as it is the case of the competition between Mr Norrell and Arabella Strange during an auction of books from a deceased man’s personal library. In fact, I would have liked a little bit more focus on Arabella so what happens afterwards has more of an impact. If it wasn’t for these complaints, I would probably have rated the book with five starts instead of four.
Overall, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite an entertaining read that sometimes has a Jane Austen feel to it, but with added sparkles of magical practices. The ending is quite emotional and completely dismissed my doubts about Jonathan Strange really loving his wife. I would like to know more about the future of the characters, so if a sequel is ever published, I will definitely read it.