Friday, August 17, 2012

Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke. Paperback, 782 pages. 

Awards: Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Locus Award for Best First Novel, The Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature, Galaxy National Book Award, Long List for Mann Booker Prize

Summary: Two magicians with very different methods vie for best way to bring magic back to England. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.


    It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.

     The desire to see her was quite universal. The full stretch of most people's information was that she had lost a finger in her passage from one world to the next and back again. This was most tantalizing; was she changed in any other way? No one knew.


Writing Quality: 8/10

Depth of Concept: 6/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 9/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 6/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10


Writing Quality: 8/10. This really is a gem of a book, and one I would happily hand to creative writing students or budding essayists to study how to put words together. It's a fun, pleasurable read, and even if it's not always brimming with meaning, it at least displays the craft of writing admirably. The writing tends a little quaint, but not obnoxiously so, and Clarke describes both settings and different people's attitudes and reactions with equal ability. Clarke's style is very "English" both in the sense that it styles itself after the somewhat archaic prose of Jane Austen, and in its really clever but understated humor, which would compare well with the witticisms in Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, T. H. White's Once and Future King, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, and even J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Pratchett's tends a little sillier, and Rowling's a little more in-your-face, but all of these authors are branches of the same witty family tree.

Depth of Concept: 6/10. I debated whether I should score this a point higher. If I were to have a good long discussion with another Clarke lover, I might be persuaded to the higher score . . . but I'm going with my gut and leaving it at a 6. Inserting magic into a (somewhat) contemporary England is not a new idea; Rowling did it with great success with Harry Potter, and Jonathan Stroud did it with some innovative twists with the Bartimaeus trilogy, and Philip Pullman did it with the His Dark Materials trilogy, among others. But Clarke does it with a sophistication that is unequaled by these other worthy stories. Her extensive footnotes remind one of Moby-Dick (and Bartimaeus, incidentally), but her story is much more straightforward (though even lengthier) than what we get from Melville. She employs an equal, and perhaps even greater number of tangents than Melville, though they often feel redundant (in a pleasant way), rather than revealing. Still, Clarke writes of magic and magical beings with such an original tone, sort of morose and nostalgic for the perplexing fairytales that come out of folk traditions, and she embodies so richly a whole era and social milieu, that she's really doing something special. Reading her work reminded me of portions of A.S. Byatt's Possession, offering much-appreciated adult sophistication to a genre that that often lacks it. You might also get some mileage out of noting the ways Clarke's story highlights events and trends that occurred historically, things like industrialization, class integration, changes in warfare, and even definitions of what it means to be "English." Still, by the time I finished the novel (which took a long time) I was struck less by innovative or complicated concepts, than by the richness and pleasantness of Clarke's world.

Rounded Characters: 6/10. To be honest, I can't say I found many of Clarke's characters particularly charismatic or interesting. Even the most dynamic characters, such as Jonathan Strange or his wife Arabella, seemed to float sort of haphazardly through the book and their own lives. In that sense, maybe there's room to make comparisons to something like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or even Tender Is the Night, which at first read in high school I found rather tedious (clearly, I was too young for them). But I'm not sure there is the same sort of character depth in Clarke's effort. It's not that the characters are merely flat (though a few are); it's that they are often boring, and it's mostly Clarke's clever narrative voice that held my interest, not the characters themselves. Maybe I'm not suited for Clarke's antique style of parlor sniping and gossiping. But I am familiar with, say, Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance and The Marble Faun (which I think may be at least as good for comparison as anything by Austen) and those at least made me seriously ponder what lay in the depths of each character, something I rarely found myself wondering with Clarke. Clarke also makes the fun choice to include some well-known characters like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron, but I wished there was much more of this sort of cameo stuff, and more revealing moments with the cameo-makers. Still, a 6 isn't bad; it's just that rich character development was not the highlight of this still very pleasurable reading experience.

Well-Developed World: 9/10. It is certainly a rich, well-developed world, both in terms of explaining the way magic fits into a sort of alternate reality, and also regarding the care that Clarke gives to describing the various settings, whether natural, urban, or magical. And it's not just an accumulation of mediocre detail, such as I find in something like Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World; rather, Clarke manages a sense of history and tradition and epic depth and mystery that puts her world squarely in competition with Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring or T. H. White's The Once and Future King. There are moments that elegantly hark back to faerie traditions in Spenser's The Faerie Queen, or in the Lais of Marie de France, or simply in old, quirky fairytales. There's no doubt that the novel is still bloated by footnotes and asides . . . but you can skip half of them and still get a wonderfully crafted magical story that feels like it smoothly connects an innovative take on English magic to some of the great literature to come out of the British Isles.

Page Turner: 6/10. Well-written though it may be, Jonathan Strange is not a quick read. It's a hefty book, and it doesn't need to be nearly as bloated as it is. Several hundred pages could easily have been edited from the book, in favor of a snappier pace. In doing so, we might lose some fine descriptions and quietly pleasurable scenes, but there are so many available I frankly don't think I would much miss the loss. As it is, I had a hard time feeling like I would ever get to the end, what with a two-year-old daughter running around our place. It's the kind of book that I might choose to sit down with in front of a fire during a wintry week of nothing else to do . . . but when you actually have other things to do, it's hard to get comfortable with the almost glacial pace of the novel. More than 600 pages in, you'll finally reach some exciting moments, but they're short-lived. Really, Moby-Dick was easier to get through, and that's saying something. I do think a case could be made for the value of Clarke's leisurely pace . . . that it approaches the actual tedious research process that some of the characters perform while compiling all of their magical material, and so it includes the reader in a world of books and eclectic stories in an ingenious, if sometimes exhausting way. But especially those first hundred pages -- they were just too damn long for me, without any apparent goal in sight, and without any sympathetic character for me to root for. And the characters themselves rarely seemed to be at any risk of anything, and so I rarely felt compelled to turn the page to ascertain their well-being.

Kept Me Thinking: 6/10. Yeah, it was well written enough that you couldn't help but be at least somewhat intellectually stimulated, by the well-crafted prose if nothing else. But I didn't often feel like this novel was about anything in particular, not in the way Hawthorne's dark mystical works seem to really get at the depths of human nature, for instance. It mostly felt like a monumental but pleasantly tangential daydream by a talented prose artist, a light, relatively clever exploration of a delicately crafted, diversionary thought experiment. The intelligent use of footnotes and the well-imagined world are pluses . . . but I can't say that the story really filled my head and heart the way some really great stories have.

Overall Recommendation: 7/10. Definitely worth a read, at the least to enjoy some quality prose and the fun of magic spread across a rich alternate reality, all put to page in a style nostalgic for Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen. It's a novel, I think, that you should go into expecting to get bogged down, and if (when) you do, feel free to skim and skip at your leisure, sampling the delightful fare along the way. If you're a fan of Austen's writing, I'd be really curious to see how you think this stacks up against it, since I'm no aficionado. In terms of dark, mysterious subject matter, I actually think Hawthorne's works are the better comparison.

Books To Compare: Clarke's world of "faerie" contains strong echoes of well-respected fantasy forebears, from Spenser's The Faerie Queen to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the Lais of Marie de France. She's clearly a fan of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, though not necessarily its happy ending. If you love the mysterious and mystical quality of Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell will be a treat for you. I'd point particularly to The Blithedale Romance and The Marble Faun, though both of those ultimately have more emotional and philosophical depth (though less clever humor). You'd probably want to be familiar with Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, as the progenitors of the Gothic novel. And Jane Austen -- everyone makes comparisons to Jane Austen, though I can't vouch for that myself. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on Amazon.


  1. I have wanted to read this book for forever! Now it sounds like I need to bump it up the list

    1. It's a really fun read as long as you're not in a hurry. If you want to start and finish a book on a long plane ride, this is not the way to go. But it's delightful, if not life-changing, from beginning to end.

  2. After seeing you cart around this behemoth for well over 6 months, I am loathe to read it myself. But I must admit that the excerpt was quite enticing. I could sense the Austen-esque quality of it just from that. I'm certainly a sucker for witty Brits. Although I'm not a person who voluntarily reads about magic and faerie lore, I was thinking about "The Illusionist" (and "The Prestige," though it doesn't sound that dark) and how I enjoyed those movies. Would you find any similarities there?

    Perhaps we could make a deal, you read my two favorite Austen novels and I'll read this crazy-massive one.

    1. Yeah, I think The Illusionist is probably a fair movie comparison, especially in tone and subject matter, though the best comparison to the wit in the film would probably be an Austen film adaptation.

    2. And I think I'd take you up on that deal. I'm pretty sure I'd finish first. But it would be fun to compare afterwards.

    3. After I threw out that deal, I was thinking it still wasn't quite'll finish way before me. But if I throw in Gaskell's North and South, now that's a fair deal. So I say, Persuasion, Pride & Prejudice, and North & South, and you've got a deal. Gaskell lacks the same wit, but she's got class warfare to spare.

    4. How 'bout two of the three you mentioned and I read inane children's stories to Addison every day for the next five years.

  3. I've never even heard of this book but your review makes it sound worthwhile.

    1. It definitely is. You should give it a try, sometime when you've got lots of time on your hands.

  4. I really enjoyed this book when I read it - I fell completely in love with Arabella, and no one else :-) That said, I have zero compunction to read it again. I agree it's long and hard to get through and, well, there are other books to read.

    1. I liked Arabella - there was a certain spunk to her that is appealing in a Jane Austen sort of way. But frankly, she didn't get much time in the book, nor did we get to follow almost anything of her journey, or observe any changes in her over the years. As appealing as she was, she was still pretty thinly described, unfortunately.

      I think I'd go back and read excerpts from the book from time to time, but I agree, I'd probably not read it cover-to-cover.