Another book sitting on my shelf for years, another false start ages ago, and finally, a commitment to get through it.
I’m so glad I did. (Kind of a theme this year, I guess.) Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell, is an incredible piece of fantasy fiction, and possibly the most British book I’ve ever read. (And that is saying something.) Susanna Clarke wove a world of words and history and magic that I felt completely absorbed in.
The story begins simply, Gilbert Norrell is the last magician in England (not really) and had decided that he wants to begin the work of returning magic to his land. Like a good man of the era (height of the Napoleonic Wars) he knows this must be done respectfully and in service of King And Country, so he begins by striking the ancient rites and superstition from the record, and proceeding academically.
He slips up once though, which becomes hugely important later. He calls on the aid of a fairy to help him bring a young woman back from the dead. Of course, any one who knows anything about fairies could tell you how this would end, but alas, Lady Pole is stuck heading to Faerie to dance all night long at the behest of her rescuer. (Who also, through a wish, winds up ensnaring her husband’s servant, Steven Black, the son of a Jamaican slave woman.)
Norrell is eventually joined by Mr. Jonathan Strange, the kind of peppy idle gentleman in search of a career that peppers the novels of Miss Austen. Strange has recently married and is curious, but mostly for curiousities sake.
Now obviously, things spiral out of control, and poor Arabella Strange pays the price, and somehow, this yarn about fairies and magic and you know Napoleon, becomes a story about the people that often pay the price for the meddling and misunderstanding of well meaning white dudes. (HINT! Two young women and black man were brought up earlier!)
But for all that I love when a book gets social justicey, all of that is moot unless you can hold together the main narrative. And it pretty spectacularly does in this case. The details of this world are gorgeous, well described and terrifying. The Fairies are never seen as anything other than evil and then bored, the magicians are constantly convinced they’re on the right road even when it’s quite clear that they aren’t.
Anyway, up next is Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (Because I figured I should read yet another book that I know the movie it’s based on by heart…) (Also, more spooky lady books.)