Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

As usual, I am years behind everyone else and am only now reading the Next Big Literary Thing.  (I suppose now it's just a Literary Big Thing.) Ten years!  That's how long it took me to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,  though I've only owned this book for about three years (which I got at the bargain price of $1 at the library's Friends sale), and is yet another Big Fat Book that has been taking up space on the TBR shelves.  This book is almost 800 pages, and I've already started the audio of The Pickwick Papers.  I really and truly had no business starting this doorstopper, but it looked dark and mysterious, and that's exactly what I was in the mood for on New Year's Day when I picked it up.  

Quite frankly, it's just BRILLIANT. It's taken me almost two weeks to finish (due to interruptions), but honestly, I didn't want to rush through it. This is one of those books that I was glad to savor and read in bits in pieces. I didn't want to stay up all night to find out how it would end. I wanted it to last forever, because I knew I'd be sad when it was over. 

For those who don't know the setup, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell begins in 1806, in Yorkshire.  There is a society of magicians, who really don't know much about magic, but they've heard that there's a Mr. Norrell with an amazing library of magical books and who claims to be the last practicing magician in all of England.  A couple of them go to meet him, but either he's a snob or he doesn't like competition.  He makes them an offer: Mr. Norrell will do something amazing to prove he's a magician, but all the others must sign an agreement that they'll never try to do magic again.  All but one of them accept. 

Well, he does do something amazing -- he goes to a cathedral and brings all the statues to life.  Everyone's abuzz with the possibility of actual magic back in England. Mr. Norrell moves to London and meets a lot of fashionable people, and then he performs another unbelievable feat of magic. Soon all of London is crazy for magic. Mr. Norrell offers his services to help with the war against Napoleon. He also takes on a single pupil, Jonathan Strange, a wealthy young man who's a bit of a dilettante, but he seems to have found his calling as a magician. The rest of the book consists of the the development of the relationship between Strange and Norrell, and the changes that magic brings to England.

One of Portia Rosenberg's  illustrations from the novel
This 800-page book is set up very much like a Victorian serial.  There are 69 short chapters, all about ten pages long, which was really nice for reading in bits and pieces. This isn't a book I wanted to rush through.  It took me more than two weeks to finish this book, and I was glad to stretch it out.   I can definitely imagine this published weekly, like the novels of Dickens and Trollope.  It has a very Dickensian feel about it, though it's set in the Regency period which was the time of Jane Austen.   I normally hate comparing books to other books, but I couldn't help thinking that if Jane Austen and Charles Dickens could have met and written their version of Harry Potter, it would have been very much like this. Susanna Clarke nails the Victorian writing style more than any other historical writer I've read.  

It's also written as though it were an actual history of how magic came back to England, complete with footnotes to explain all the references they make, mostly about ancient magicians and stories of magical events in the past.  I also found it very funny in parts -- there are a lot of snarky little asides.

Some people have complained about the pacing of this book, but I thought it was just right.  I just loved the world of Strange and Norrell and I'm really sad now that I've finished the book.  It took Susannah Clarke about ten years to write it. I've heard that she's writing a sequel and I really hope that's true, and that it won't take too much longer for it to be finished.  

In the meantime, apparently the BBC is adapting it into a TV miniseries!  That's actually one of the reasons I decided to tackle this book -- I really wanted to read it before I watched it on TV. It's going to air here in the States on BBC America, though there's no word yet when it will actually be shown.  I'm glad it's a miniseries and not a TV movie or feature film, because the format is just right. Eddie Marsan is playing Mr. Norrell and though he's young for the role, I'm sure he'll do a wonderful job.

Bertie Carvel (left) as Jonathan Strange and Eddie Marsan as Mr. Norrell
There are some other production stills floating around the internet. I don't recognize any of the other actors but I'm really hoping it will live up to the novel.  Susanna Clarke also published a book of short stories called The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I've already requested it from the library. 

Has anyone else read this? And how is your reading going for 2015?  


  1. I'm feeling that I really need to reread this this year. And I'm dying for the sequel! It's been a long wait already...

    1. I'm sorry I didn't read it earlier, but in a way I'm not sorry, because hopefully it will make the waiting for the sequel less agonizing. I hope it's not much longer!

    2. I don't know, there doesn't seem to be any publishing date in sight. Let's hope it bursts upon us as a pleasant surprise.

  2. I read it on a winter trip to Scotland probably a few months after it came out and there was a lot of buzz about it. I remember loving it whilst I was reading but feeling in places that a bit of editing wouldn't have gone amiss. I think your comparison to Harry Potter really hits the mark because like the longer HP books what you're really getting is a whole world to sink into, and you have to be prepared to sink into it entirely otherwise it's easy to get impatient with all the footnotes.

  3. I'm about halfway through the audio of this one and still loving it to pieces. I imagine it'll take me to February to finish up, but I don't want to rush it either. (Strange has just gone off to the second war, and relocated Brussels.) I had no idea there were illustrations in the book! I'll have to check out a paper copy to see those when I'm done.

    Interestingly, I don't feel like the language is very old at all, nothing at all like in classics style. Maybe I just got used to that kind of language or something, or maybe I've read so much fantasy over the last few years that I'm pretty immune to this kind of language. Not that I don't enjoy it, I just thought it was an interesting observation that I hadn't noticed at all at this point.

    Also - I love the snarky asides and footnotes. The audio reader (Simon Prebble) does a fantastic job with the footnote sections. And with the whole book, really.

  4. It took me so long to read this book - I brought it when it was brand new and I finally read it last year. It was one of those books I desperately missed when it was over, and I am so looking forward to the short stories, the sequel and the adaptation.

    I even found myself wishing for Jonathan Strange during the interminable wartime chapters of Vanity Fair.

  5. Yes, this book is truly brilliant. Your post has made me want to reread it :)
    There's also The Ladies of Grace Adieu by the same author, which is a collection of short stories set in the same world, which is well worth picking up.

  6. I've read this and I love it, and I cannot WAIT for the miniseries! I just hope it comes out good. I'll be so very disappointed if it doesn't turn out any good. But I'm deliberately NOT rereading JS&MN before the miniseries comes out -- I don't want to have too clear a memory of each and every event in the book, and I'm hoping that way I won't be mad about any particular changes the miniseries makes to the book.

  7. Okay, I'm going to have to give this one another try. I stopped reading about mid-way through--must've been a mood!

    >if Jane Austen and Charles Dickens could have met and written their version of Harry Potter, it would have been very much like this.

    Love that description. I didn't hear about the mini-series, but that is even more incentive to start over and finish it this time.

    Good job on completing such a big book this early in the year!

  8. Ah, this one is on my TBR list for this year! I had to laugh, because I got my copy at a Friends book sale a few years ago, too. I think I started reading it but put it down for some unremembered reason. I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

  9. I also bought my copy for a nominal sum at a library book sale. I like how you mention the pacing of the book. It isn't something I thought about at the time, but you are right. There is really something special about that feeling, when you just get lost in a book like that.

  10. I read this when it came out and loved it. I'm now reading Clarke's collection of short stories, such a pleasure to read her prose--as you say she really nails the 19th-c. style. I'm going to try the audiobook version of Jonathan Strange, to refresh my mind before viewing the adaptation. I'm curious about how the footnotes are dealt with!

  11. I also read this when it was brand new and I'm going to reread it finally this spring before the miniseries comes out. I loved it so much and I hope that it's the same the second time through!


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