Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

I wanted to like this book.

(I'm very tempted to stop and leave it at that, but that would be lazy.)

Set in London, in the early 1800s, with Napoleon skirting around the edges; a period and area I'm rather fond of. And magicians. This should have been my sort of book.


I do not believe that a book should be a test of endurance, either of my mental stamina or the strength of my wrists. 782 pages is a long time, for both of these things. It could just be that the book didn't gel with me, but before it even came into my possession I'd been told by multiple people whose opinions I trust that 'the first 500 pages are a bit slow but then it picks up'. 500 pages of slow is a lot of slow.

By the time I'd waded my way through that 500, I no longer cared, not about the characters or the outcome of the story. Not caring is probably the worst reaction I can have to a book. There are plenty of terrible books I've read that I've cared about, in a rabid frantic frustrated sort of way, which worlds more love than this received. I reached the end, and thought "hoo-bloody-rah".

Which isn't to say it had this affect all the way through. I was enjoying myself at the beginning. Clarke has good control over her voice, and it is consistent throughout the entire book. Norrell, despite being one of the most annoying characters I have ever come across, is incredibly well drawn, and has more depth than all the other characters combined. (I felt a particular empathy to his concerns about his books, and the fact that people might touch them. I'm also now more aware of how ridiculous such concern looks from the outside, not that this will change my attitudes.)

I was also fond of Strange's adventures in Spain, if only because he was protaging.

(I'd almost go as far to say that Clarke didn't write a book set in the 1800s, but wrote an 1800s book. But, not having read many books from that period, it's entirely possible that that statement is a load of horse shit.)

(Still, she did work hard at it, but I do wonder at the wisdom of it. It's quite an accomplishment to write a book from another century, but it is THIS century's audience which will read it. The mindset is...different now.)

Having had a couple of days distance from the book, I'm left wondering exactly what the point was. The ending didn't satisfy me. There were loose ends, large ones, messy ones. It didn't end, it just stopped. Was there a point? I'm not sure of the message. Given that a prophecy was involved, one that had some sort of purpose behind it...I still can't see what was actually achieved. This, more than anything else, makes me resent 782 pages.

Doors have been opened, however. I will read her again.

Verdict: Make up your own mind.


  1. I felt, like you, that I should have liked the book more. I wanted to. What I've said to others before about it is that I appreciate what she did in creating this kind of book with its particular style and the whole thing with footnotes and all that, but it didn't work the way I wanted it to. I got into it more toward the end, and I wanted to find out what happened, but I felt a sense of distance from the events and characters. There wasn't that sense of immersion or connection with other books. Also, it took her a hell of a lot of time to set things up and the follow-through didn't balance that.

    Your theory about it being an 1800s book sounds good (particularly an 1800s English book), but I'm not knowledgable enough to be sure either.

  2. Hm. I loved it, but I recognised it as a "Stu" book - the kind of thing that appeals to me and, possibly, only me. :)