Book 36: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Or as I like to call it, White Men Sitting in Drawing Rooms Talking About Magic. For 1006 interminably boring pages.

I’ve been slowly struggling through this one for the better part of four months and greeted the final page today with nothing short of elation.

My ordeal is finally over.

Credit where it’s due: Clarke’s novel is a triumph of style. The tone is note-perfect and the consistency of the Victorian language really quite remarkable. In these purely mechanical terms, Clarke is a gifted writer.

And while the novel is part of a preponderance of post-Potter books about magic, the premise is compelling: an alternative history of nineteenth century England in which magic is a part of everyday life. Real figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte rub shoulders with our titular magicians in what’s a clever mashup of fact and fiction and quite an extraordinary exercise in world-building.

But despite it’s cleverness, and despite Clarke’s mastery of the word, this book is a chore.

The plot is thin – which would be problematic even for a novel half this length – and the characters don’t really pick up the slack.

What animates and motivates and drives these men? I’m still not sure, even after four months in their company. Clarke’s language keeps us at such polite remove from who they really are. We never really get inside their heads; they seem to have no emotional inner life.

While Clarke has managed to ape the style of the likes of Austen and Hardy, she doesn’t bring the same depth of character or human insight.

In that sense, Strange & Norrell is a neat magic trick: spectacular, even breathtaking but ultimately illusory and hollow. The books achievements are like a literary sleight of hand to distract you from what’s really going on: which is not very much at all.

UPDATE July 29: I’ve subsequently watched the 7-part BBC miniseries adaptation. It’s not perfect – relatively low budget and hokey at times – but ultimately I found it much more satisfying than the book. It’s much more focused, with less filler and better pacing. It has more energy and action in every episode than book has in its entirety.

Author: adamgartrell

Political journalist drowning in books

2 thoughts on “Book 36: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke”

  1. I could not agree more. It also suffers from the Magical Plot Hole, which is, ‘well, if there’s magic, just fix this problem with it’ every time there is narrative conflict. Perhaps I’ll try the series though!

    Liked by 1 person

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