Katie's Reviews > Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
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Dec 01, 07

it was ok
Read in December, 2007

I place Susanna Clarke squarely in the company of Tolkien and Frank Herbert; that is, writers with the ability to imagine absolutely astounding fictional worlds - with incredibly rich and complete histories, cultures and people - but who don't have the skill to write down a compelling story. That's why enjoyed the movie versions of Dune and LOTR, but hated being forced to read them in written form. What Clarke has written here is a history book, a book that shows off the incredible world she has created. For that achievement, I applaud her. Unfortunately, she was so busy being proud of the world she created that she allowed it to get in the way of a story that could grip and keep a reader's attention.

There are many minor problems, but the major one, in my opinion, is that I don't care one iota for any of the characters. Mr. Norrell is a one-dimensional character with no depth or background whatsoever. He's a whiny, selfish, naive pill, and that's the whole length and breadth of his character. He's a placeholder for Clarke - a convenient anthropomorphic figurehead for the collection of books Strange needs to consult. Other than that, he's totally unnecessary to the plot or the story in general. Strange's character vascillates back and forth from a heroic nice guy to a self-amusing cad, such that the reader can never get to know his character comfortably. It's as if Clarke was writing him differently on different days, and then shuffled her papers. Plus, Strange goes inexplicably from being a feckless gentleman to a powerful magician - something Clarke doesn't explain (unless there was a CD missing from my audiobook, which there was not).

Clarke does that a lot- making sudden character changes that move the character/plot forward or tie up a thread without bothering to explain how or why this change occurs. The fate of Lascelles is another example. It's as if Clarke suddenly went, "Uh oh, the ending's coming and I have to do something with this guy. I'll just do...this." And poof, his thread is removed from the story, without really resolving anything.

Then there are the footnotes. If we're trying to show off the incredible world and history that Clarke has invented, bravo. If we're trying to totally interupt the flow and momentum of the story every other word so that we can never just settle in and enjoy a compelling tale, bravo again. And it isn't just the footnotes that do this. A huge complaint of mine is that every character talks like the footnotes, regardless of class, gender or situation. Even servants give long drawn-out explanations of things, using words and grammar that real people of their class in real situations just wouldn't use. I could sum up Clarke's use of dialogue in six words: REAL PEOPLE DON'T TALK LIKE THAT. I know she was trying to imitate the 19th century style of Jane Austin and the like, but even Austin knew that servants talked differently than gentlepeople. And Austin's characters didn't sound like they narrating a book. They sounded like people talking. Clarke's did not. They sounded like Clarke trying to tell us more about her great world that she thought up. (And I'm not referring to the accent or inflection conferred by the audiobook voice actor. I'm talking about the actual words put into the characters' mouths.)

Other readers must be seeing something I'm not, since this book won the Hugo and other such awards, and was named The Best of This, and The Best of That all over the place. Perhaps I gave it an unintended handicap by listening to the audiobook, so that I received it through the interpretation of the voice actor (with whom I was less than pleased). I will keep the printed book on my shelf and give it another shot sometime, since it certainly must have earned the acclaim it has received, which means that I'm the one who's wrong. :)
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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Kelly How do audiobooks handle footnotes???


Katie Each footnote was recorded on its own track on the CD, and they were read in place. This way it was possible to skip them and continue with the text. I don't know if every audiobook handles footnotes this way, though, and I guess for cassette tapes they'd just have to read it straight through.


Kelly That sounds tremendously annoying.


Katie It was. But then, many reviews indicate that the footnotes were annoying regardless of medium.

The worst was when there would be a list where each item had a footnote, so that you would get one word of regular text, a footnote, one more word of text, another footnote, etc. Very hard to follow the narrative.


message 5: by Jeffrey (last edited Dec 09, 2007 08:11PM) (new) - added it

Jeffrey At least Tolkien and Herbert had the courtesy to write more than one book and not cram everything into one massively boring text. Ugh. Of course, I'm not finishing this, so I shouldn't really be judging. And I didn't finish Tolkien's first book or Herbert's second, so maybe my point is rather moot.


Kelly So if you're not finishing it, Jefferson, can I have it back so I can reread it? :-)


Katie I never finished LOTR either. You could argue that Tolkien really did write just one long book, since each 'book' doesn't really end with any kind of resolution, they just sort of stop. And imagine if he'd tried to include all the material from the Silmarilion as well!

As for Dune, Herbert couldn't write. He had a great imagination, but the technical writing skill of a seventh grader. I pained my way through Dune as a matter of duty, but I couldn't bear to pick up the next one.


David I'm actually finding the footnotes on the audio book more interesting then the actual story. Odd that I prefer the story to be broken up and to become distracted.


Julie "I place Susanna Clarke squarely in the company of Tolkien and Frank Herbert; that is, writers with the ability to imagine absolutely astounding fictional worlds - with incredibly rich and complete histories, cultures and people - but who don't have the skill to write down a compelling story. That's why enjoyed the movie versions of Dune and LOTR, but hated being forced to read them in written form."

Wow, IS there another person in the world who shares my opinion on Dune and LOTR and now, apparently Jonathan Strange as well?! We're opinion-twins!


Shanna You took every word from my mouth regarding this book. Nearing the end of this book I started to get really nervous that I wouldn't get the resolutions that I'd hoped and.....I was right. Fickle endings. It seems like she was so lost in creating this whole world that when she arrived at the end she just realized that somehow she had to tie all the knots together.


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Thank you, Katie! I'm reading it right now and it's giving me a hard work, I'm still around page 300 and I already feel exactly how you describe in your review. Those footnotes are driving me nuts!


message 12: by Joe (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joe Wow I can't believe people are actually writing on a site about books that the movies were better.


Ancestral Gael I enjoyed Tolkien, but Clarke was just too much to endure. Footnotes don't bother me (even in the audio to which I listened). I just feel it could have been abridged and achieved a much better book.


Wisdomroot Spot on description of this book and its flaws. I also agree with you about LOTR. Although The Hobbit is a very charming, fun and easy read in a very different style from the main series so I think Tolkien could write great characters and story when not distracted by world and language building. I actually think Dune (past page 100) is a very engaging and well written novel and I hated the 80's movie.


message 15: by Nick (new)

Nick Marsden Wisdomroot: I actually liked LOTR better than the Hobbit. The Hobbit was the sole reason it took me until the movies to read LOTR, I hated it so much. I liked LOTR, but Dune and Strange/Norrell both bored me to tears. Luckily, Strange/Norrel redeemed itself to me in the end, though I don't think I'd slog through it again.


Heritor Who forced you to read Tolkien and Herbert? They sound awesome!


David Acevedo I wish someone had forced me to read Tolkien and Herbert. Said person would probably be the collest teacher ever. Oh, wait! I had such teachers. Yay!


David Acevedo btw... I can't see people who are not able to read this book as being able to read the likes of Paul Auster. Oracle Night? Just saying... ;-)


message 19: by Avy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Avy Archer I liked your review and I have to agree, I never felt anythign for the characters at all and in such a long book, it made it very difficult to force myself to finish it


message 20: by Oliver (new) - added it

Oliver Hassani Your entire credibility as a reviewer was thrown out the window when you said Frank Herbert cant create a "compelling" (strictly subjective term by the way) story... and that you actually liked the dune movie...

I hope you didnt find Star wars to be "compelling" as it was almost entirely ripped off from dune...


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