Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Historical fantasy / Standalone

“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow.”

Hundreds of years have passed since the decline of English magic, which is believed to be gone now. Everything changes one day in the early 1800s when the secluded, antisocial Mr. Norrell shocks a group of scholars with a display of magic that catapults him to fame as the only magician in England. When he finds a protégé in the younger and more charming Jonathan Strange, the two form an uneasy friendship and mentorship. But their partnership is threatened by Strange’s interest in faerie magic, more dangerous and volatile than what Norrell purports to practice, and by the dark forces that the return of magic to England has unleashed…

I’m sure everyone has already heard a lot about this much-loved book set during Napoleonic Wars.  I will add my words of praise: this is a really wonderful and unique book. It’s like Jane Austen with dark magic, the characters often trading witty and barbed remarks through a veil of excessive politeness. It’s both laugh out loud funny and desperately creepy, sometimes almost simultaneously. And it’s incredibly quaint, with the occasional bit of old English spelling dropped in, all while being suffused with the darkness and eeriness of the book’s system of magic.

I adore the characters and the atmosphere, which is coloured by the fearfulness and unpredictability of the magic in Clarke’s Victorian setting. I had a lot of fun with Norrell in particular, a conservative and stodgy man who is constantly trying to defend his position as the only practical magician in England. His somewhat cantankerous personality and his hypocritical mentorship of Strange, where he sings the praises of his student all the while trying to prevent Strange from surpassing himself, was really very entertaining.

The general creepiness of the book owes much to the morbid and fear- and awe-inspiring magic of this setting, as I’ve mentioned, but also its villain, known only as “the Gentleman with thistle-down hair”. He is my favourite villain of the year so far; well-spoken, arrogant, bloodthirsty, and entirely bereft of any moral compass whatsoever. He steals people who interest or impress him to his world, and forces them to dance and mingle and entertain him in the ethereal halls of his kingdom, Lost-Hope. It’s all beautifully (and creepily) written.

For all that I’ve been singing the praises of the characters and atmosphere, though, I didn’t love the overall plot and structure of the book as much as I hoped to. For me it was a bit too long, a bit too unwieldy and meandering, and a bit too verbose. The many tangents are often hilarious, or charming, but they feel awkwardly stitched together sometimes, and there are a couple of times in the first 500 pages or so that the momentum grinds to a halt.

Another problem I had was that the footnotes did not appear at all in the text, and so I didn’t discover them until after I had finished the book. I started using OverDrive not too long ago and after this poked around a bit after this to see if there were any settings I could change to integrate the footnotes, without success… Any suggestions from other e-library readers? On the bright side, I guess, if you’re not into footnotes, it doesn’t seem they were necessary the book, since I thoroughly enjoyed it without them.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a long, whimsical, and captivating read… and a really very funny book. The narrator uses her omniscience to make dry observations about the story and characters – for example, one moment that made me laugh out loud:

“He had once found himself in a room with Lady Bessborough’s long-haired white cat. He happened to be dressed in an immaculate black coat and trousers, and was there thoroughly alarmed by the cat’s stalking round and round and making motions as if it proposed to sit upon him. He waited until he believed himself to be unobserved, then he picked it up, opened a window, and tossed it out. Despite falling three storeys to the ground, the cat survived, but one of its legs was never quite right afterward and it always evinced the greatest dislike of gentlemen in black clothes.”

This is the sort of slightly morbid and wry humour that Clarke uses throughout; if it’s the sort of thing you enjoy, than this 800 page tome will make you a very happy customer.

If you like _______, you should try Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell:

  • Themes of madness vs reason, marginalization, and ‘Otherness’
  • Jane Austen
  • Dry British humour
  • Frightening, funny, and beautiful writing

If you dislike ________, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell might not be for you:

  • Longwinded/tangential writing
  • An old-fashioned, quaint style

One thought on “Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)”

  1. When I heard this was going to be a TV show, I started looking around for a copy. I’m not watching the show, nor did I plan to, but news of the show was motivation for me to seek out a copy. I finally did find a used copy last month, good price, but I had to pass on it. Even for the price, the condition was too bad :/ Still want tor read it, and I’m hitting up a used bookstore on Monday, so maybe I’ll find one then!
    DJ (@MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape) recently posted…Guest Post: Jay PoseyMy Profile

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