Monday, July 14, 2014

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

As part of my getting ready to visit London, I’m going to be reading some books that take place in England or are written by British authors so be prepared for a series of book reviews that have a “London Calling” theme.  I intentionally chose this novel because I’d heard good things about it.  That should have been my first warning.  I can’t even remember how many novels have been highly recommended to me that left me disappointed.  At the bottom of this book review is a list of some other books already in my queue to be read.  If you want to chime in with a personal recommendation, please feel free to do so, especially if you’ve read one of the books listed. 

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a modern novel told in a Victorian tone, which explains its massive size, because the author does an excellent job of mimicking the verbose style of writers who were paid by the word.  Unfortunately, it too often reads like Clarke thought she herself was being paid by the word.  The story could have been as effectively told with a fourth or more edited out.  The time it takes for her to set situations up for the next even to happen becomes tedious, especially when the reader is able to correctly predict what is going to happen chapters before anything actually occurs.

Not that the novel was a thorough disappointment.  The premise is interesting.  Magic is returning to England in the time when King George III is losing his mind, Napoleon Bonaparte is building his empire, and a group of theoretical magicians are forced to face the implications of what happens when a practical magician forces them to retire.  Clarke has done a lot of research, evident in the plethora of historical figures—from Lord Wellington to Lord Byron—who meander across the pages.  And the endnotes are amusing, sometimes rooted in fact and other times fanciful additions to the story itself, adding another layer of legitimacy to the fantasy world in which the characters live.  Sometimes the endnotes, however, are an insult to the reader’s intelligence, reiterating  events or content that only appeared a few pages before.  Someone I know said it took them three months to read this book; she probably benefited from these tedious and, in my mind unnecessary, endnote reminders.   

As expected with any novel of this size, many characters are introduced, interact with one another, become more or less important as the narration unfolds.  The characters, themselves, are mostly two dimensional, only changing on superficial levels rather than having any real character driven epiphanies. If you like the characters, and you probably won’t, you’ll want to see what happens on the next page.  But the fact is, most of what happens is predictable.  As characters are moved from scene to scene, it quickly becomes evident how each player will turn out in the end, with foreshadowing so blatant it’s more spotlight than shadow.

That this novel is an homage to the Victorian novel is further evidenced by the ingénue role of the women.  Young girls are innocent, sweet, compliant while the older women are only there to counterbalance the preciousness of the younger ones.  There’s nothing wrong with creating a novel that is written to sound like a classic novel.  But it can be done well (e.g. Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet which is another “Victorian” style novel that was written in contemporary times) or it can be done tediously.

It didn’t help that I read this on my kindle.  The e-version of this book is so poorly edited it is painful.  When you add in how ponderous this book is to read, even in the physically lighter e-version, the book is entirely too easy to put down.  Odds are, I’ll forget most of the story before too long and the characters sooner than that.

I understand the BBC is planning a movie or something.  It probably will make a better movie than it did a novel.  How often does one get to say that?  If the movie is actually worse than the book, I’d be shocked.  They’d be hard-pressed to make the story more dull than it is on the page.

Future Reading List:
My Man Jeeves by P G Wodehouse
Abinger Harvest by E M Forster
Two On a Tower by Thomas Hardy
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
and maybe some Charles Dickens . . . I was thinking one of the following:


  1. I couldn't get into Jonathan Strange at all, even though it came highly recommended. It was a DNF for me.

    The Pickwick Papers is on my maybe list this year, seems like a fun one since it's about traveling around England.

    Joy's Book Blog

    1. Joy, Thank you so much! I'll put Pickwick in my queue. I have Hardy and Woolf there too but I'm reading Forster now. Oh and Wodehouse too.


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