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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Thoughts)

October 25, 2011

From the publisher’s website:
The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very opposite of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine. 

I’ve been putting off this review for a long time. As in, I finished it over two months ago. The reason? Other than just being behind on reviews overall, I wasn’t sure if I liked. You would think that’s something I would know, after spending such a long time with that 800-page book. But, once I finished, I wasn’t sure if I was happy because it was so good or because I wasfinally finished.

So we’re going to figure this out together using a good ol’ pro/con list. Also, it will probably be pretty short because, I mean, it’s been two months.

Things I know I liked:
*The mix of fact and fiction. I loved that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was, at times, a retelling of British history with magic added in. It almost felt like it was the lost story of what really happened. I’m not even sure which characters were real people and which sprang from Clarke’s imagination. I love when that happens.
*The footnotes. I know! Many people have disliked them with a vengeance, so much that they ruined the entire book. But I thought that they were fun, for the most part. Although I’ll admit that I skipped some as I got closer to the end, I thought they were generally entertaining meanderings and fables and random facts. However, some of the footnotes reference other footnotes, so I kind of feel that choosing to read them should be an all or nothing decision.
*The wonderful feeling of accomplishment at finishing it. I’m not sure this really counts, but oh boy did it feel good.

Things I did not like:
* The length. I already knew that long books and I generally do not get along very well. My attention span seems to be way too short. Unfortunately I didn’t realize it was so long when I put it on hold, so when I picked it up at the library I sort of broke out in hysterical laughter. The thing is a monster.
* The pacing. A good amount of the story seems to slog on by. Something exciting would happen and then there would be pages and pages of some subplot that didn’t seem to be connected to anything. And while I liked the footnotes overall, they did tend to pullout of the story and were especially distracting when they came up mid-conversation.

You know what, I think I actually really liked Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. If my biggest complaint was the length, it turns out there’s a solution to that. Jenny mentioned that, besides just coming as one massive volume, it’s also available as a three book set. I want it! While I’m not a fan of long books, I am a huge fan of series, where I can spend a couple hundred pages with characters and then revisit them later on in a different book. Weird how the format of a story can so greatly affect my enjoyment of it.

This wasn’t really much of a review, but thanks for bearing with me as I worked through my thoughts on this book!

My rating: 9/10 (look at that high rating for a book I wasn’t sure I liked!)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. from208 permalink
    October 25, 2011 1:31 am

    Hi there, I really agree with what you say here! I wanted so much to absolutely love this book but at the end I wasn’t convinced, it isn’t as good as it could be for me. She has all the ingredients but didn’t quite get it perfect, is that too much to ask for?! But seriously, it is too long and plods at times, however some of the writing is stunning:

    “These ladies and gentlemen, visitors to the city of Venice, were excessively pleased with the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. They thought the facades of the houses very magnificent- they could not praise them highly enough. But the sad decay which buildings, bridges and church all displayed seemed to charm them even more. They were Englishmen and, to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world. They belonged to a race so blessed with so sensitive an appreciation of its own talents (and so doubtful an opinion of any body else’s) that they would not have been at all surprised to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city- until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful.”

    I enjoyed the book and would read again despite my slight feeling of disappointment. A word for the excellent cover art too, it looks fantastically intriguing yet so simple.

  2. October 25, 2011 4:25 am

    I loved the footnotes. The tongue-in-cheek tone of high scholarship was just the right poke of humor to make this looong book zip by.

  3. October 25, 2011 6:00 am

    I loved the footnotes too but I did skip a few when I didn’t want to get pulled out of the story. It’s a behemoth of a book though. I like long books but sometimes you do feel as if you’ve been reading them forever. It’s gets tiring even if you’re enjoying the story. This would be a great read broken up in three parts though!

  4. October 25, 2011 10:31 am

    I absolutely loved this book, but yes, it was a pain to carry around! The three book set would have come in handy.

  5. October 25, 2011 10:49 am

    I loved this book too! In fact I’m hoping to do a re-reading of it next year. I simply relished the footnotes, and yeah, I enjoyed the tone and feel of this book so much!

    I’m so glad you’ve finally decided you’ve liked it. :D

    I wonder how the book has been divided into three,….

  6. October 26, 2011 9:27 am

    I’ve been thinking for a while about picking this book up but the size has always put me off. Maybe I’ll give the three volumes a try. But footnotes always tend to put me off…. so undecided.

    • October 26, 2011 10:26 am

      Try Clarkes Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories. I’m reading them at the moment. I think they would be a good way to introduce to the kind of world she writes about. And personally, I think reading her short stories will encourage a great deal in picking up her huge novel! :D


  7. October 26, 2011 1:30 pm

    Ha! I actually had three different versions of JS&MN. I’m not sure if I’ve told you this before? Anyway, I read the hardcover version, which was actually painful, and then I got the mmpbk, which was impossible to read, and now I have the three volume set, which I haven’t tried to read yet but I’m assuming it’ll be a lot better than reading the other two versions.

    So. Yeah.

  8. October 26, 2011 3:48 pm

    I always think I should be unimpressed by Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, because I think of myself as a plot girl and JS&MN is not terribly long on plot. I guess it’s just that I love the world so much that I’m willing to spend time just hanging around there. I love the footnotes, I love the language and the history, it’s just all wonderful. For how massively long this book is, I’ve reread it a LOT of times since it came out.

  9. Sarah Says Read permalink
    October 29, 2011 12:22 am

    I’m just starting this now, so I’m glad to hear that you did end up liking it! It’s definitely interesting so far… but something about it (could be the sheer giantness of it) just makes me kind of sleepy. I’m hoping to remedy this by alternating between audio and paperback… we’ll see how it goes.

  10. October 31, 2011 6:11 pm

    I usually do fine with long books, but this one just about killed me. I had the same issues you had with pacing and general dragginess. I loved the idea of this story, just wished I’d enjoyed the story more.

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