Susanna Clarke – "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell"

15 Apr

GENRE: Fantasy
PUBLISHED: Bloomsbury Books, 2005

The back blurb:
“The year is 1808, England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.”

Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel was, I believe, compared to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Rowling’s Harry Potter. She certainly needs around the same number of pages to tell her story: the last sentence of the novel – page 1006 in my edition. That takes some effort to read – in time, patience and strength (the book is heavy).

Maybe you could make the point that whereas The Lord of the Rings creates an English mythology, Strange & Norrell creates a history of English magic. Clarke does this with footnotes in the style you might find in biographies. They deliver mostly background information about the history of English magic and make the premise of the book – the re-discovery of magic – more believable with their details. Problem is, the footnotes tend to get out of hand: two pages of small print recounting a incident that happened some hundred years before and, if at all, has only the slightest connection to the story? That’s a bit distracting and in danger to be skipped altogether. The reason why Clarke used them is understandable, but that alone doesn’t make them work in the intended way.

As for Harry Potter, Strange & Norrell is about two magicians and Clarke shows the same tendency to wander from the story and to now and then get lost among her imaginations (see also above paragraph) as does Rowling. There are scenes or even whole chapters that could be left out and the story wouldn’t suffer. They are episodic and do nothing to propel the story forward, they just make the background more vivid and detailed.

The tendency to wander is especially strong in the “beginning” of the story (for a novel with over 1000 pages this can be a huge number of pages). Clarke takes her time to establish her “reality” and to introduce her characters. To give you an idea: the story of Strange’s father is told in chapter 14 (an example for a chapter not really necessary for the “main” story); the first time Jonathan Strange is the main focus (maybe even introduced) is chapter 22; and Strange and Norrell meet for the first time in chapter 24 (page 285). This makes the beginning very slooow and, more often than not, boring. I was tempted to put the novel away as far in as page 500. What kept me to it were Clarke’s writing style, the fact that her “wanderings” sometimes were quite interesting from the point of view of imagination, and that I had the dubious wish to know if there was a story at all.

Well, the pace started to pick up after the first half of the novel, and with that my reading speed. I finished the second half much faster than the first, and my opinion went from: “If we had some kind of UBS here, this book would go” to “I would keep it”. Maybe Clarke had finally all elements in place to begin with the story she wanted to tell. Or maybe by then I finally found The Story among all the stories. But still, that’s (too) late (and a good way to lose readers), even if it’s a novel that’s written in resemblance to some of the 19th-century novels. No editor there?

The second problem concerning The Story is that it’s set in motion, or more precisely not set in motion, because the main characters don’t talk about things that might give them a clue about what is really going on (which in some ways explains its length). Quite a few times you get a sentence like: “He didn’t mention … to …” and another chance to maybe catch up with what’s really happening is lost. This makes especially Strange just look stupid. There is one incident where another character tells Strange about something unusual, Strange says that this was regarded as a sign of … – and Strange doesn’t even think about if this might be true now, too. But then, if the characters would talk and would put the clues together, then were would the length of the novel go? Talk + put the clues together + solve the problem = shorter novel. And we already know that even the editor was in favour of a looooong novel, so ….

The sad thing here is, IMO: shorter novel = cut back on Clarke’s tendency to ramble endlessly (+ maybe smarter characters) = Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell = a (really) good novel.

Would I recommend this novel? Yes, but only with serious reservations (structure) and a strong reminder for the need of patience.

Would I read this novel again? Probably not.

Grade: 3 / 5


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