Book review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

It has taken me so long to finish this. Really. It was given to me as a birthday present in May, and I think I started reading it in July-ish (if my Goodreads start date is accurate, which I think it might be here). I finished earlier today. It is slowwwwww going. Very interesting, but sloooooowwwwww. It was Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, which, now I am writing a novel of my own, I find really impressive, because it means she sold it at its mammoth length of over 1000 pages. From reading about selling your writing (not that I’m there yet, or will be anytime soon), it’s uncommon to sell such a tome as a first book, because, well, it’s expensive for the publishers, and you’re not a safe money-making bet just yet. To see this in action, consider Harry Potter – book 1 is normal novel length, and, well, JK’s editors could definitely have cut down books 4 onwards just a bit, but it wasn’t quite as necessary as she got more well-known and more of a guaranteed sell. So, props to Clarke for selling her epic debut. The edition I own was published as a Bloomsbury Modern Classics imprint.

Non-spoilery synopsis

The story tells the story of the rebirth of English Magic at the hands of the scholarly and antisocial Mr Norrell and his pupil, the more conventionally magician-like Jonathan Strange. They progress through polite regency society, debating the challenges and practice of magic in England. The magicians have differing opinions on how one should use magic, with Mr Norrell buying up all books of magic around the country and secreting them in his country house library to protect Strange from them or vice versa, and Strange being convinced that they should make proper, dynamic use of the power available to them. Via the Napoleonic wars and various personal tragedies, they go separate ways, but end up needing to come back together.

The point of this book

It’s an exercise in beautifully constructed prose.

It’s a long satire of the time period, specifically the politics and society. Kind of reminds me a bit of Vanity Fair meets something Dickensian (though slightly too early), meets an alternative history of England meets folklore. It’s a really interesting take on Englishness (v different from my last review, which also considered Englishness, but in the present day), with a very long and mystical view on English history. I really like the alternative history sense, going back to two English kingdoms, with the northerly one being ruled as of old by a human/fairy king.

Plot is not the major thing in the book. At one point (around page 500) I found myself googling whether it would ever speed up. Someone’s helpful review on Goodreads said yes, from about page 650. So I persisted. I feel like there is a helluva lot of book for relatively few plot-points. Go into reading it knowing this. In Writing Excuses, one of my favourite podcasts, Brandon Sanderson called this book “the best boring book he’s ever read”. Yup, that works.

There are a number of things that get a bit much over the course of this tome of a book. One of them is Mr Norrell’s insistence on removing books from other people who might be keen to read them. More annoying is the use of extensive footnotes. Note, not the extensive use of footnotes (like in the Bartimaeus sequence by Jonathan Stroud – where the footnotes are the demon character’s sidebar story), but the use of extensive footnotes, like footnotes that sometimes run on for the bulk of 3 pages or more, with over half the page devoted to the subtext. In lots of cases, these footnotes are quasi-academic, references to the books from Mr Norrell’s extensive library, but sometimes they just tell a somewhat-related context-adding story that is tangentially related to what Strange and Norrell are up to. I think my frustration is that they’re often so drastically off piste from the main text that I had to go remind myself what was up, and that honestly, in a book of over 1000 pages, particularly in this verbose style, you could probably have added these narrative diversions in the text-proper rather than as a sidebar.

I’ve not got the inclination to do into depth about the characterisation, but would like to say that I like two of the ‘secondary’ characters (Childermass and Stephen Black) a lot more than I like the title characters. I think Strange goes through the most drastic journey over the novel, and the narrative follows his experience most closely. Stephen is probably the most sympathetic character, and Childermass is a lot more interesting (in my opinion) than his master, Mr Norrell.

Worth it?

You have to be into verbose regency-period alternative history stuff. You have to like Old English style magic (try Puck of Pook’s Hill for a more straightforward, accessible version of this kind of magic). It’s fantastical, it’s magical, it’s satirical and witty. But you’ll have to be stubborn to make it through. I think it would possibly be better to have read to you (yes, Audible, you advertised this to me for AGES and I didn’t take the bait) than it is to read. Tiny print, for 1000 pages. I did enjoy it, though.

Oh, there’s also a miniseries version – I’ll have to get hold of it somehow, and see if it’s any good in adaptation.


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