This month’s Feature Article will be examining Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Winner of the 2005 Hugo Award, Clarke’s novel may not appeal to all readers, and I think that of all the books I have reviewed here, this one really comes down to individual taste. Rather than recommending it, or advising you to stay away from it, the best advice I can give is to try it and judge for yourself.
In many ways, it becomes difficult to even classify Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as a fantasy novel, at least not in any traditional sense. A more accurate description might be a historical 19th century British literature novel with an overlay of magic. On top of that, Clarke went out of her way to write the novel as if it were penned in the 19th century. This latter fact is enough to turn off many readers. If you enjoy the slower pace of this type of literature, then Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will be a much easier read; if your fantasy requirements require a faster paced page-turning read, then this book is definitely not for you.
My emphasis in college was 19th century literature, and there is always a novel from this period on my reading list. I am currently rereading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which coincidentally has a similar voice and style to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, so I was not put off by Clarke’s choice to pen the novel in this style. I simply accepted the very slow pace and kept reading. I will admit, however, that at times the plot seemed to grind to a standstill, and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that large sections of Clarke’s work were boring.
In many ways, it is a shame that Clarke produced such a long slow reading book. The concept of two magicians striving to return magic to England during the Napoleonic wars is intriguing. Her depth of research and period accuracy are flawless, and her dialog is witty and always engaging. Of course, without these, the work would have been an utter failure, but at times, they were not enough to carry the story forward to satisfy my appetite for meaningful action. Wading through six hundred and fifty pages to reach the climatic last one hundred is a lot to ask from your readers. By the time many readers reach this point in the novel, I suspect that they are exhausted and not that emotionally invested in the characters, particularly Strange and Norrell. Add to that a protagonist whose motivations never seemed quite clear, and you do have a novel in which it becomes difficult to get emotionally attached to; indiscriminate and pointless violence does not make for a very interesting protagonist. By the end, the only thing I really cared about was if Arabella would be rescued or not, seeing as she was the only “real” character left by that time, and the only one I had any sympathy for.
However, to be fair to Clarke, you really were not supposed to like Norrell, and in many ways, Childermass is the more interesting character, perhaps more so than even Strange. Her cast of secondary characters are pretty strong, again without which the novel would have been a complete failure. There were, however, three areas were I felt Clarke didn’t succeed very well.
The first is structural, and it is the use of her footnotes at the end of each chapter. Often, these footnotes were longer than the chapter itself, which proved to be distracting rather than providing the depth she was looking for. At first, I was willing to give her a pass on the footnotes because I was reading the eBook version which made it extremely difficult to flip backwards to see what the footnote was referencing, but after awhile, they simply became a distraction that added nothing to the story other than showing off her ability to concoct six hundred years of history.
The second area I felt was a little flawed was the contradiction between the lack of magic in England and Strange’s incredible feats while in Spain with Lord Wellington. Given Strange’s lack of knowledge and his inability to access any of Norrell’s books, I found this a little unbelievable, especially when he seemed to be doing magic to a degree much more advanced than the historical magicians he and Norrell were trying to emulate. Once you have the ability to move mountain ranges, rivers and cities, I’m not sure what else there is left to achieve. Granted, part of the premise was to return magic to the masses in England, and Strange had not yet done that, but there was still a bit of a disconnect here regarding the proportion and scale of his achievements in Spain.
The last area I had a little bit of difficulty with was perhaps minor, and it is certainly open to debate regarding its relevance. I had a little difficulty believing that Norrell and Strange wouldn’t have been able to “connect the dots” a little better. At least Clarke was consistent here, since at the end, Norrell and Strange still had no idea who their protagonist really was and how they had actually defeated him. However, Norrell knew the bargain he had struck resurrecting Lady Pole, and even though he was a selfish insipid man not prone to admitting a mistake, I just had a hard time accepting that he wouldn’t have made the connection. True, Strange did know who he was fighting to free Arabella, but it still did not feel like enough of a conflict to satisfy me.
So to summarize, I’d have to give Clarke a middling grade here on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is a lengthy, well written book, with a unique and very interesting concept, and her depth of research and period accuracy is very good. Her dialog is witty and on point, particularly for the period. Had an editor cut the footnotes and chopped two hundred pages, I think she would have had a much better book. As an aside, I have seen others suggesting that this story should have been broken into a series of three books. I disagree with this since I don’t think book two and three would have been purchased by too many people after reading the first third of the story.