It’s not often I like a book’s narrator better than its characters. But that was my experience for much of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
Clarke—or the persona she adopts to tell her story about the return of magic to early 19th century England—is whimsical and wry, frequently inserting herself into her tale with asides that begin with apologies like “It would tire my reader’s patience…” and “But in case you should imagine that this chapter will treat of none but disagreeable persons…” Her descriptions are similarly droll; my favorite was “the silence of half a hundred cats is a peculiar thing, like fifty individual silences all piled one on top of another.” She even censors her characters: at one point, Ned, a soldier who wants new boots, explains his need by saying “It is these d—d Portuguese roads.” This charming style sustained my interest through the book’s meandering early stages, which start with the latest uncharitable act of Gilbert Norrell, an anxious little curmudgeon who’s spent much of his life ruining other practitioners of magic and appropriating their books on the subject. After the spells he uses to carry out his latest theft cause a sensation, Norrell capitalizes on his notoriety by moving to London and gaining employment with the government. Meanwhile, as Norrell’s station rises, Jonathan Strange, a heretofore hopeless dilettante, settles on magic as his true passion. Hearing of Norrell’s exploits, Strange seeks and secures the older man’s approval to become his first and only student.
Strange turns out to be a prodigy, but he takes a leave of absence from his studies to help the (soon-to-be) Duke of Wellington fight through Portugal and Spain on his way to besting Napoleon. But this isn’t a Richard Sharpe novel; there are no blow-by-blow combat scenes or linear plot lines that drive us briskly from one bullet point on an outline to the next. Instead, Clarke lights a cheerful little spark and lets it burn slowly where it will, with frequent stops for detours and digressions—until the last third of the book, when the story’s disparate threads reveal themselves to be fuses whose charges erupt simultaneously.
The change of pace was perfectly timed, recalling my attention as it started to wander. But even when I set the book down during some of the slower bits, I never doubted I’d pick it back up; Clarke’s stewardship was too amusing, too inventive, and ultimately too trustworthy—I always had faith she was shepherding me to a satisfying conclusion. And she did: in the end, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell proved itself worthy of the time it took to read. I just hope the forthcoming BBC adaptation retains some of Clarke’s character along with her characters.
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