Read or Perish: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

There are some books that it’s just mandatory that you read – or at least try to read. If you tell me you’re just not interested in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I can accept that, sure; epic world-building historical fiction with a fantasy spin and a fairytale-like mythology isn’t for everyone. But if you don’t at least give the first few chapters a chance, we can no longer be friends.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an odd, enormous book. It asks you to imagine that there used be magic in England, and that there used to be a powerful magician named The Raven King, and when he disappeared, so did the practice of English magic. Scholars and societies of men who called themselves “magicians” studied the history of magic like it was Latin – or something even less useful than Latin, like your appendix – something no one uses. Then, onto the scene appears Mr. Norrell, a practical magician, who, when summoned before the York Society of Magicians, stirs up a ruckus by actually using magic. He then goes on to use more magic that is quite obviously out of his league, because he makes a mistake that doesn’t seem like a mistake at first, but sets in motion the events of the rest of the book.

Jonathan Strange, who appears in the footnotes (Oh, did I mention this book has footnotes? It does, and they are tiny little brilliant stories of their own.) before he actually appears in the events of the story, is an almost-poet who becomes one of Mr. Norrell’s students, and then, as all students eventually do, breaks away from his teacher when it becomes clear their magical styles are radically different. But that’s only one third of the story – as much as Strange and Norrell are pillars of the narrative, there is also a mysterious, wild-looking fairy who is only ever known as the man with the thistle-down hair; there is Lady Pole, who suffers at the hand of Norrell’s mistake; there is Stephen Black, a servant in the Pole household; there is Strange’s wife, Arabella, and Flora Greysteel, a dear friend. But Strange isn’t the only one with friends – Norrell, as cranky and often-unlovable as he is, has the reprehensible Lascelles, and, my absolute favorite, Norrell’s enigmantic servant Childermass. There is even a fake-magician con-artist who has a prophesy to deliver. Everyone is connected, all of their lives intersecting and coming together through powerful forces as though they were all controlled by some power stronger even than the whole of English magic, or, quite possibly, by the embodiment of English magic; as though, they were all, in fact, part of a magic spell someone far away was speaking.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell belongs on my Read or Perish list because I have never read anything like it. I’ve read some wonderful books that do a superior job at world-building, that create captivating new universes within the first few sentences. I’ve also ready plenty of books that weave together seemingly unconnected storylines artfully into one larger story. But none of those books had footnotes, and the Napoleonic wars, and books of magic and books about magic and such a large cast of uniquely described and compelling characters. Susanna Clarkson has written an utterly consuming story worth carrying around in your bag or squashing it into a suitcase despite its enormity. It’s worth squinting at the footnotes. It’s worth all the stops on your bus route you’ll miss, all the phone calls you’ll forget to answer, all the sleep you’ll give up as you lose yourself in the story. (If you’re losing a lot of sleep, though, you might consider trying to figure out whether or not you’re spending your nights in Fairy… It happens.) Read this book. OR ELSE!

-Andrea

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