Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

House of Leaves put me in the mood for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I can’t account for because they are two wildly dissimilar books.  House of Leaves is terribly modern and American and all sort of up in your face, and Jonathan Strange is set in early nineteenth-century England (alternate England, but still) and is much with the fairies and book-learning and wry gentility.  Anyway I fetched out my convenient three-volume box set of paperbacks, and I read it starting in 2009 and finished in 2010.  There should really be a word for a book you start one year and finish the next year so go invent one!

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is all about magic coming back to England.  In the Napoleonic War times, it is widely known that there are no practical magicians in England at all, only theoretical ones who read about magic in books and don’t do any themselves.  Except that a practical magician turns up hoarding books in Yorkshire, a selfish, querulous old man called Mr. Norrell who is determined to bring magic back to England.  Good magic, which in Mr. Norrell’s opinions means nothing to do with the fairy realms and absolutely nothing to do with England’s magical, legendary king, John Uskglass.  Then a wealthy, idle young man called Jonathan Strange, in an attempt to impress the girl he wishes to marry, decides to be a magician too (and is good at it – calling him wealthy and idle gives the wrong idea about his magical abilities).  Things go on from there.  They help to defeat the French by using magic.  A slave called Stephen is helped (or persecuted) by a mysterious fairy gentleman with thistle-down hair.

The nice thing about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is it’s long?   But you don’t have to feel daunted by it, because you can probably tell in about five chapters whether it’s your sort of book or not; if not, you can stop reading; if it is, then hooray, there’s tons of it ahead!  The first five chapters – the first chapter by itself, really – gives you an excellent idea of how the book is going to go.  Some drastic things happen, but not without a lot of explanation; there are a lot of footnotes; the writing is amusing but probably won’t make you laugh out loud.  I knew straight away I was going to love it.  The footnotes don’t tend to be germane to the story, but they’re full of backstory and – I don’t know, sidestory? – and tidbits from the history of this alternate England.

I read this in early 2006, and since then I managed to forget nearly every significant plot point.  I remembered Jonathan Strange going off and becoming Wellington’s useful magician; I remembered the business with Lady Pole’s finger; I remembered whole sentences verbatim that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair says to Stephen Black.  But I had it in my mind that Childermass was the Raven King all along, and that Mr. Norrell ended up going to live with the King of England, and I’d completely forgotten whole plotlines (like the Greysteels – they showed up and I was all, who are these fools?).  Reading it again was like reading it for the first time.  A perfect book for the holidays.

36 thoughts on “Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

  1. I read this book when it came out and really enjoyed it, too! I think I could do a re-read, but not any time soon. Now that you mention all those plotpoints you forgot, I think I forgot them, too! Wasn’t she planning a sequel at some point?

    My favorite character was Jonathan Strange’s wife (Arabella?). I loved her, and thought she was fantastic.

    • Is she? A sequel? Possibly with more Arabella? I hadn’t heard that she was, but I’d love to read a sequel! I’d really like to see the women have more to do – I agree that Arabella was an excellent character, but she didn’t get a lot of play in the book.

      Hm, seems The Infallible Internet ™ thinks she is working on a sequel with characters lower down the social scale. I can get on board with that…

    • I understand. I really enjoyed the writing itself – I found it amusing – so I was willing to bear with some confusing plot elements. Which apparently I promptly forgot and misunderstood. 😉

  2. Oh man. I LOVED JS&MN when I first read it (back in 2007, I think?) and I’ve been wanting to reread it ever since. But I AM daunted by the size! It took me a week to read that thing, and even then I wasn’t sure I’d love it until the next-to-last chapter.

    Maybe I’ll just read it over spring break, ahaha. :U I know lots more about the Napoleonic wars now, too (mostly from Horatio Hornblower books), so maybe I’ll have an easier time of it (the history tripped me up the first time).

    • Really? You weren’t sure until the end? Well, there goes my theory about being able to decide about it right from the start! If you’re still on the fence about rereading, I’ll mention that it reads sooo much faster the second time around (for me at least).

      • Five chapters is a good idea– if you don’t enjoy ANYTHING about JS&MN by then, then I’d stop reading it. I had enjoyed bits and pieces of it during the beginning and middle, but the story moved so slowly and the book itself was so heavy (it was painful to hold! seriously! I had the hardback) that I wasn’t sure if it had been worth it to read the whole thing until the ending sequence. THEN it became rewarding and awesome and I loved it.

        Anyway, now I’ve got the hardback, the mass market paperback, and the multiple-volume set, so at least the physical aspects of the book won’t be holding me back!

    • I hope you do! I think it helped me decide to reread it that I have it conveniently split into three paperback volumes; then I didn’t have to worry about hauling around that massive tome.

  3. I read this book at a pace of 2 chapters a day. I’d read my 2 chapters before I could read anything else. Doing it that way was probably the only way I could have gotten through it. I was often bored until closer to the end. It was a well imagined epic with Dickens-like characters. Glad you liked it.

    • I am incredibly impressed that you got through it, not enjoying it much! I’d have given up after probably the first volume, with a book that massive, if I wasn’t liking it pretty well.

  4. A lot of my friends loved this and two of them bought it for me when it came out, so I read it. I remember enjoying it a bit, but like you, I don’t remember much of the story now. I’d have to call it forgettable.

    • Well, I think a lot of the forgetting bit was me failing to understand it in the first place (I’m ashamed to say!). I enjoyed it for the writing more than the plot, the first time, but in fact I turn out to like the plot quite a bit too.

  5. I’ve had this book sitting on my desk since the summer, but I’ve just felt so overwhelmed by the size. I look at it and move on to the next book immediately. I’m so glad to see you review it and give the suggestion about the first 5 chapters. I will definitely have to do that!

    • See, what you need is a convenient three-volume set of paperbacks, like I have. Not at all daunting but indeed very friendly-looking. I hope you like it!

  6. If I were to do a best of the decade list, this would absolutely appear on it. There are very few books in recent years that I’ve loved so much. I’ve read it twice and listened to it on audio once.

    • Oh! How was the audio done? I mean how did they do the footnotes? I’ve been dying to know how the footnotes were accomplished in the audio version, but it’s always checked out of my library.

      • On the audio version, when the reader got to a footnote, he just said “footnote one,” read the footnote, then said “end footnote one,” and returned to the text. Each footnote was given its own “chapter” on the disc, so someone who wanted to could skip them easily (although why would anyone want to? They’re so cool!) I thought this worked pretty well, although on a few of the really long footnotes, I lost track of the fact that I was listening to a footnote. But I can’t think of a better way to do it.

        The reader on the audiobook was very good. I do recommend it, but maybe not for a first-time read.

    • Aw, thanks! Yeah, I like the title, and I like the cover as well – that’s what drew me to it initially, seeing the black covers and the white covers side by side in the bookshop. Because, you know, I’m shallow that way. 😛

  7. I’ve got this and have put off reading it for years because of its size. Reading your review makes me feel like this might be the moment to pick it up – I was keen for some fantasy this month.

    • I just cannot advertise the virtues of the three-volume paperback box set enough, if the full-size book is too massive. Though part of this is just that I love a box set with all my heart. I mean, it’s books, in a box! They fit nicely in a box and are organized all the time!

  8. I read this in 2005 or 2006 (not sure when), and I’ve managed to forget most of it too! I’m planning on rereading it this year, and you’ve made me more excited. 🙂

  9. I’m glad to hear it stands up for a re-read, because I know I’ll want to approach this one again someday. It’s got so many details I’m sure to have forgotten most of them, which will make the re-discovery all that more wonderful.

    • I exactly agree with you about the details. Clarke’s created a really rich, cool fantasy world, and she writes about it so charmingly, that it makes a reread as fun as an original read (for me anyway).

  10. I started reading this book back in 2006, got about halfway through before NaNoWriMo pushed all reading out of the way, and have never managed to get back into it, despite putting it on several TBR lists since then. Maybe this year …

  11. Pingback: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Read Along: Part III | Iris on Books

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