Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Paperback book cover of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

In the interests of disclosure, let me begin by saying that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell took me nearly a month to read. Hell, Anna Karenina didn’t take me that long and I was reading other books at the same time! While I don’t mind investing a long period of time in a novel, it has to be worth it and I’m not entirely sure that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell really was.

Plot summary: Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the
second shall long to behold me The year is 1806. England is beleaguered
by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical
magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious
history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose
displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to
London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of
ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is
challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice
Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very
opposite of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two
great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their
own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to
cause more trouble than they can imagine.

First of all, you really do have to try with this book. It’s not something you can pick up for two minutes at a time, or a page here and there. Nor can you read it while even remotely distracted as it’s actually quite heavy at times (and I’m not just referring to the literal weight of 1000 pages!). Unfortunately, unlike some lengthy books where the story engrosses you and you’re at the end before you know it (like 11.22.63 by Stephen King), you’re always completely aware just how long this book is. I was constantly closing the book and examining the position of my bookmark to see how far I’d reached. 

It
definitely has the tone of a serious history book, hence the detail and
formal style. It ‘references’ the books of magic that Norrell and
Strange talk about and uses footnotes when it’s going off on a larger tangent. This does mean that occasionally the footnotes take up more room on a page than the actual text, but that’s not really a huge problem. Unfortunately you don’t often see much emotion or characterisation in weighty historical volumes, and this one (although an imitation) is no exception. I couldn’t help but feel that after 1000 pages, I should know the characters better than I did. Surely some of that time could have been invested in creating fuller characters?

I don’t think I ever really understood the reason for the rivalry between Mr Norell and Jonathan Strange though. It was just suddenly there – this huge, dramatic hatred caused by nothing that I could see. Something like that could be excused in a 320 page teen novel with huge font, but not in a dense 1000 page serious novel. Seriously, the narrative has time to discuss a beggar’s father’s employer’s ancestors at one point (literally) but not to do more than lightly skip over a major plot point?

Somewhat ironically, the ending seemed rather rushed.It was almost as if Susanna Clarke realised how long her novel was going to be and tied everything off as quickly as possible. It’s not all dealt with unfortunately, but there are some conclusions that I enjoyed – such as what happened to Stephen, for example.

I do have to give it credit for
continuity though; I don’t think I could map this thing out with a flow
chart and coloured string. Characters from earlier in the novel
occasionally pop up in the footnotes later on, as having published a
book that is then referenced from this book.

As you can probably gather, I just couldn’t get into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. You know how sometimes it’s best to start a story knowing next to nothing about the story, so that every little twist comes as a surprise? Well here I’d recommend the exact opposite. Read up on a basic outline before you begin or you’ll end up blithely wondering what the point is. The story tends to bump from minor event to minor event and I was at least two third of the way through before I could take a stab at what the over-arching plot really is. Just read a basic outline first so you can keep focused.

It was just too long! I loved the idea of it – Victorian magicians trapped in a bitter rivalry during the restoration of English magic – and it could have been wonderful. I’m sure it will make a wonderful movie one day (or three, judging by the current trend of scraping three films out of one book), but the effort required to read this in novel form just doesn’t pay off.

Read a more positive review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at 
Lit Addicted Brit.

Comments

  1. I did the mental equivalent of putting my hands over my ears and singing 'la la la!' as I read this review! I adore this book, even though all your criticisms are valid (especially the irrational hatred one).

    1. Hanna says:

      I'm glad to hear you say that! I wasn't sure if I was just missing something 🙂

  2. Sarah says:

    Thank god I'm not the only one who felt this way! This book was so popular for a while, but it felt like WORK trying to read it. Blah.

    A movie might be good… if it's only ONE movie. None of this 3 movies out of one book crap. And this book could benefit from a lot being cut out.

    1. Hanna says:

      You have no idea how glad I am that I wasn't the only one to feel that! You're right though, it was so much effort to read that I hardly ever felt like picking it up.

      It could only ever be a good film if they cut out HUGE chunks… which they wouldn't have to do if they made three films. Bet they would though, or at least two. Money grabbing morons.

  3. Ellie says:

    "I was constantly closing the book and examining the position of my bookmark to see how far I'd reached." Oh yeah, I'm a really bad one for this. I can read for five minutes and then be inspecting the top of the book, like, WHY HASN'T IT MOVED? WHY?!

    I do have a copy of this book, but I haven't dared to start it yet. I think it might be one for AFTER we're done with the shop, when I have weekends again (or even prolonged downtime, if I can't find another job straight away). I'll try to keep an open mind about it, but I'll take your advice and persevere and read a summary first AND wait until I have plenty of time to get stuck in properly. Hope your next read suits you better! *mwah*

    1. Hanna says:

      I don't do it so often if I'm engrossed in the book, but I do it constantly if I'm losing interest. Lewis says I go all squinty and examine it like it should be moving of it's own accord…

      What!? Are you closing down!? Or is this a 'in the distant future' thing?

  4. This was one of my favourite books of 2012. I read it over 3 months because I didn't want it to end. I enjoyed every single page and relive it quite a lot in my imagination.

    http://www.librariangirl.co.uk

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