Book: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

Author: Susanna Clarke

Chosen because: Female author; female illustrator – Portia Rosenberg

Finally, after almost three years of picking it up and putting it down again (and I know when I started reading it, because I was using my ticket stub from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway in 2011 as a bookmark), I finished it!

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke…I have BEATEN YOU.

It’s the story of two magicians in 19th Century England. Mr. Norrell is an old fogey who thinks that being a magician is an elite thing that requires decades of study, tons of books, and isolation. Jonathan Strange is a handsome, younger man who becomes one of Mr. Norrell’s best pupils, and thinks that magic should be more accessible to everyone and that Mr. Norrell is totally unfairly hoarding his knowledge (not to mention all the books in his kick-ass library!). Wackiness – including several people being stolen away to Faerie, travel and war, and one instance of a severed finger – ensues.

A large part of me enjoyed the hell out of this book. It was as if Jane Austen wrote a Tolkien novel. There’s tons of humor, well-rounded characters, and a seemingly huge knowledge of genre. Clarke clearly knows and loves English fantasy literature. Also, I’m a sucker for books for adults that have illustrations, and Portia Rosenberg’s illustrations do a great job of  evoking the magical environment of Clarke’s 19th Century England.

So, why did it take me three years to finish it?

Well, at 846 pages, it’s long, and not an easy “Harry Potter long.” It’s a dense book with even denser footnotes from alternate-history books that don’t even exist. The actual plot, though it involves a bunch of characters, is actually really simple and straightforward, but it often feels bogged down (and lost) in world-building. You could probably cut 200 pages from this book and have it be the same book, so that made it a bit of a slog. The parts I loved, I loved because they were more Austen than Tolkien, because of the commentary on humanity, manners, and our relationship to magic and stories. The parts that lost me – or rather, the parts during which I found myself distracted by other, shinier books – were the in-depth passages that dissected the faux history of magic in England.

I know, for many of you that’s probably exactly what you loved about the book. Fine. That’s why you’re you, and I’m me. 🙂

I have a thing about footnotes, too. If you’re going to build a world, you should be able to weave it seamlessly into the narrative. Footnotes, to me, scream The story doesn’t actually have anything to do with any of these details, but AREN’T THEY COOL? No, not really. I’d much rather get back to what the characters are doing, thanks.

Not that all the characters were great. There were entire swaths of characters – like the entire Greysteele family, for instance – who only seemed to exist to do this one thing, and I was all Couldn’t you just cut this whole stupid, boring family out and have one of the other characters do this one thing? Cause this family takes up a lot of prime real estate and they’re SO BORING.

The thing is, I kept coming back to the book, because much of it was well-written, and fun. Most of the characters also kept me coming back. It’s a testament to Clarke’s writing that I enjoyed getting to know these people, and I found myself wanting to get back to them. In addition to the titular magicians, the black servant, Stephen, was fascinating as he struggled between escaping from Faerie and going back to an England that looks down on people with his skin color. Strange’s wife, Arabella, was also interesting, and I found myself thinking that she could’ve done a lot better than Jonathan; and Norrell’s mysterious servant, Childermass has an intriguing journey from monosyllabic toughie to magic enthusiast.

This is Clarke’s first novel, and it’s a doozy. It’s really ambitious, and she’s clearly a talented writer. I just wish that she would’ve gotten out of her own way a bit, and trusted the fact that her story was good enough without all the superfluous footnotes and alternate history. The ending of the novel made it seem like we haven’t seen the last of these characters, and I feel like there must be a sequel in the works (there’s also a BBC mini-series in the works). I’m looking forward to it, and I hope that Clarke will go back to basics, keeping the magic, but losing the world-building for its own sake.