In high school and below, I was a voracious reader. In college, I found that I read so much for classes that I no longer wanted to read for pleasure. I got out of the habit. In my late 20’s, I started reading more consistently once again, but never as ravenously as before. That’s life. I spent most of 2018 and 2019 reading The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, all while amassing an ever-increasing backlog of books to catch up on.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is, along with The Color of Magic and a dozen other titles, one part of a swath of used books I picked up as part of a vague mission to catch up on modern fantasy classics from the last couple of decades. I had high expectations of this one, and it managed to exceed them all.
By sheer coincidence, this review is timely. Sixteen years after her debut novel, Ms. Clarke’s second work, Piranesi, will be released in September 2020, next month at the time of this writing. You can read about that at The Guardian or EW.
Title: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy, Alternative History, Mystery
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2004
England was once home to many powerful magicians and had a close relationship with the realm of fairies. Some time around the 1600s, a good two centuries before the events of our tale, magic disappeared from England. What happened to it is a great mystery, and its restoration is Mr. Norrell’s life’s work. A quiet, studious man, he is ill-suited to navigate London politics, the Napoleonic Wars, and the ever-growing flames of excitement for magic which demands his attention. Mr. Norrell eventually takes an apprentice, Jonathan Strange, who develops bolder views of magic which clash with his master’s conservative approach.
All the while, dark forces both magical and mundane seek to ruin the magicians’ lives.
Why this book might be for you:
This might sound like an insult, but I mean it as the highest complement – this is the most engaging slow book that I have ever read. At over 800 pages in the second-edition printing, Ms. Clarke takes her time, but skillfully keeps the reader turning the pages. She employs dramatic irony to walk an impressive line between her omniscient narrator (which can tend to ruin mystery) and the story’s drama. We know what’s coming, but sit helplessly screaming at the page as the characters walk cheerfully to their doom. She does an excellent job of sucking the reader into the character’s inner life so that even the smallest action carries great emotional weight.
Norrell has a delightfully clever dry wit. If you’ve ever laughed at Jane Austen, you’ll enjoy this book.
This book is a step beyond merely entertaining. Its subtle yet poignant lampooning of gender roles, bureaucracy, along with the nature of progress, purpose, and fulfilment kept me thinking long after the book was closed. I am tweaking the release schedule of this blog so that I can release an essay inspired by this book on the next book-review-Tuesday after this post goes live.
Why this book might not be for you:
Norrell is written in a period voice. If that bothers you, this might not be the book for you. As mentioned above, although it is well-paced, it is long. If you prefer a more action-oriented, punchy tale, save yourself the frustration and move along.
Where can you find more?