Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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England during the early 18th century: the Napoleonic Wars rage and the country is in peril. Enter Mr Norrell, a reclusive and pedantic Yorkshire wizard determined to see the practice of magic brought back to its former standing in the public imagination. London society is enthralled and enthused by him – for this is an alternative history, in which the Duke of Wellington is helped by spells to win the battle of Waterloo and the constitution acknowledges that the King only really rules over the southern half of England: the rest belongs to the Raven King, who may return. Fairies – not always benign – are a fact of life. This is all devilishly ambitious stuff: Susanna Clarke very deliberately inhabits the period, throwing on the cloak of Austen or Dickens to raise an eyebrow to her characters’ foibles while putting in extensive footnotes which add a patina of (unreal) authority to the whole enterprise. Jonathan Strange is Norrell’s pupil, but the two men are so different in temperament and ambition that at some point their paths must diverge. What grounds the fantastical story is Clarke’s command of emotion and motivation. Envy, ambition, malice, loyalty, self-interest, love, duty, delight, despair – all are on show as characters fall under ghastly enchantment, bring the dead back to life, sacrifice family for work and so on. This means that, despite extraordinary surroundings, these are real people. And questions, questions: whose side is the quiet Childermass on? what does the disturbing gentleman with thistle-down hair desire? The book is funny, clever and really rather frightening in parts, as though Pride And Prejudice had been re-imagined by Neil Gaiman. There are wonders everywhere: a fleet of ships made out of water appears on the horizon; a single area of Venice is plunged into night, creating a tower of darkness rising thousands of feet above the city; in a London street, snowflakes are suspended in mid-air. But Clarke creates enchantment of another sort, fashioning 1,000 pages of narrative into a glorious, heady flight for the reader, rather than a muddy, resentful trudge. In fact that is the only problem with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: it makes most other books seem stilted, dry and lifeless.

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