Susanna Clarke’s debut novel was published in 2004 to wide acclaim (its gestation began in about 1993) but it is only now that I have taken it down from my bookshelf and read it! Admittedly, the 1006 pages of small print made it a little daunting. (I’m not averse to thick books – I read Lord of the Rings and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich over one period of time; another time, I read Gone With the Wind and War and Peace!)
What immediately struck me about this book was its style and wit. It begins in an alternative past, England in 1806. Apparently, there had been no practising magician (not someone using legerdemain, but employing real magic) for about 300 years. The conflict with Napoleon drags on and a certain Mr Norrell proposes to lend a magical hand to defeat Bonaparte, egged on by a Mr Robinson:
‘Mr Robinson was a polished sort of person. He was so clean and healthy and pleased about everything that he positively shone – which is only to be expected in a fairy or an angel, but is somewhat disconcerting in an attorney.’
Norrell is an unusual and not particularly likeable character, full of his own importance (in some cases, rightly so) and he does not suffer fools gladly. Yet until he performs a particularly remarkable act of magic – literally raising a woman from the dead – he is not taken seriously. Thereafter, he is feted – and fated – to defend the Realm time and again. To aid him, he takes on an apprentice, Jonathan Strange, who surprisingly proves very gifted in the magical arts. Strange seems the complete opposite of Norrell, handsome and popular and even daring.
However, after Strange goes alone to the Iberian Peninsula to offer his magical aid to Wellington, their friendship becomes strained. This section is particularly good, revealing historical research; I could almost expect Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe to enter the scene at any moment!
Writing in the style of a nineteenth century novel, where author intrusion is acceptable, Clarke excels, capturing the flavour of the period together with the descriptions – and over 200 footnotes – and the occasional old spelling used by Austen! This is emphasised by the Portia Rosenberg’s atmospheric broody illustrations.
‘From what she had been told she thought of Mr Norrell as a kind of miser who boarded magic instead of gold, and as our narrative progresses, I will allow the reader to judge the justice of this portrait of Mr Norrell’s character.’
Hovering like some doom-laden cloud, John Uskglass, the last great magician, seems to darken the mood, and justly so, since he was and is the Raven King.
There is a Dickensian feel too, particularly in the characters of the ‘Gentleman with thistledown-hair’, Vinculus, Drawlight, Childermass and Lascelles, all perfectly described.
‘His face was the colour of three-day-old milk; his hair was the colour of a coal-smoke-and-ashes London sky; and his clothes were the colour of the Thames at dirty Wapping.’
There are many instances of ghoulish and surreal imagery. ‘Their clothes and saddle-blankets were covered with cruel and deadly images… formed out of what appeared at first to be pearl buttons but which, on closer examination, proved to be the teeth of all the Frenchmen they had killed. Saornil [the guerrilla chieftain] in particular, had so many teeth attached to his person that he rattled whenever he moved, rather as if all the dead Frenchmen were still chattering with fear.’
Clarke’s description of an old woman surrounded by cats is most striking: ‘Her arms lay in her lap, so extravagantly spotted with brown that they were like two fish. Her skin was the white, almost transparent skin of the extremely old, as fine and wrinkled as a spider’s web, with veins of knotted blue… But perhaps she did not hear them. For, though the room was silent, the silence of half a hundred cats is a peculiar thing, like fifty individual silences all piled one on top of another… and she forgot everything in the world, except Cat – and that, it is said, she spoke marvellously well.’
The big puzzle is why Uskglass seemed to retire from the world for 300 years, and why magic went with him. Perhaps it will be answered in a subsequent tome. Dealing with powerful magicians is always problematical. Take Harry Potter, for example: why did they play Quidditch in the rain? Haven’t they heard of ‘sunny spells’? Weathermen refer to them all the time. Likewise, if a magician can move the landscape of Spain, as Strange amusingly does, surely nothing is beyond him? Yet Strange cannot easily locate Uskglass.
This is a dark tale with death and just a little redemption. The ending was satisfying in many respects, but left the story unfinished, the reader wanting a sequel – and yet a decade has passed since and it has not appeared yet, though it is still promised.
The imaginative alternative history, the colourful descriptions, the humour and wit, the characterisation, all make this an enjoyable and worthwhile fantasy read. If you love words, then you should find this novel a delight.