Steph Su's Reviews > Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
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Jul 04, 12

bookshelves: e-book, own
Read from June 10 to 22, 2012

Widely regarded as one of the best works of the modern fantasy canon, JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL was a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. And while every one of these 1000 or so pages is evidence of literary brilliance, it wasn’t something I was fully emotionally invested in. Still, though, I’m glad I finally read it.

Susanna Clarke takes the subgenre “Regency fantasy” to a whole new level with her superb command of that time period’s language. Think Austen with a heavy dose of magical elements: not only was the language reminiscent of Regency England times, but Austen’s almost insidious portrayal of ridiculous people had a heavy showing in JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL. While Strange and Norrell are arguably the main characters of the eponymous novel, we readers don’t really like them the way we usually do protagonists, because most of them are not good people: Norrell in particular manipulate nearly everyone out of fear of a loss of influence, meanwhile letting his even-less-appealing “friends” manipulate him in turn. All the unsavory characters in the book make Jonathan Strange look very good indeed, but he’s no real “wounded hero,” just another self-centered guy who does not give enough consideration to others in his life.

That, I guess, is what ultimately disappointed me about this book: it doesn’t break any conventions or tread new ground in terms of genre or sociohistorical issues. Clarke crafts an alternate, magician-focused history for England, but, with the exception of head-scratchingly long footnotes showing just how in-depth Clarke has got with her alternate history creativity, JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL didn’t blow me out of the water with originality in its fantasy genre.

Additionally—and this may just be me—I found it a bit off-putting how small a role women played in the novel. For a book written by a female author, I had expected a bit more subversion of historical attitudes toward the role of males vs. females in society; yes, the book doesn’t attempt to focus on the inequality and tensions between different parties, but I was surprised that the book didn’t take such a step with potentially strong and interesting female characters such as Arabella Strange and Mrs. Pole. No, at the end of the day, things and people seemed to be pretty much what they had been before the book started, which results in reader’s confusion along the lines of, “I just spent three weeks reading 1000 pages…and did anything significant really happen?” Hrmph.

So, in some ways, reading JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL was for me like reading a classic that the “great authorities of literature” say is a must-read but on a personal level was a slog to get through. While I certainly appreciated Clarke’s Austenian writing style, I closed the book realizing that 500 pages could’ve been cut out and I would have thought nothing was amiss.
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Quotes Steph Su Liked

Susanna Clarke
“But when the fairy sang the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy’s song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.”
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Reading Progress

2.0% "The voice is so genuinely Austenian."
8.0% "Not having an emotional attachment to the characters so far, and am also starting to be daunted by its length. Hoping I get more invested soon."
12.0% "Heh, the author certainly knows how to write despicable characters. Even our main character so far is being difficult and unattractive."
20.0% "This is kind of creepy, in a cool way. Thought-provoking because this can be read as a giant metaphor for today's society... -_-;" 2 comments
28.0% "Choosing sides now. Strange FTW!"
45.0% "Maybe it's a little too early to say, but I think I adore the Duke of Wellington." 4 comments
56.0% "I like long books, I do, but boy do I want to break this book up with other readings." 2 comments
63.0% "What the fuhhh..."
70.0% "This is getting quite creepy, eee."
73.0% "I still have no idea where this is going to go..."
80.0% "If only they would just TALK to one another and stop interrupting one another and stop holding silly grudges against one another, then all of this trouble could be solved like that!"
90.0% "Whoa! That was so heartless and calculated, but quite true to character. What the heck is going to happen next??"
100.0% "Crazy-cool and satisfying ending. On the other hand, this book really could've been 500 pages shorter and it still would've been too long. Hrmph."
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Simcsa Yay! I love the book, I'm always happy when I see someone reading it. Enjoy! :)

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