Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — What to Know So You Won’t Keep Putting It Down

I should preface this by saying that I loved reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The writing-style was superb, the characters were interesting, and I truly felt transported into another world. I say this because I’m going to criticize it a bit.

But I’m going to criticize it in the hopes that if people go in to reading it knowing its one fault, perhaps they’ll be able to finish it instead of putting it down in the middle like some of my friends and even I (temporarily) did.

The book’s one flaw is this:

Much of the time it’s more of a history than a story.

In fact, it’s presented as a history, complete with footnotes. It’s a history told by an eloquent narrator, not just a collection of facts, dates, and anecdotes. But the pacing is at times more like a biography than a novel.

Fortunately for me, I like Russian novels. In fact, I’ve been switching between this book and War and Peace. Russian novels have so many characters and plots that even though they’re less like a history than Strange and Norrell (though War and Peace gets that way with the battlefield bits) they require a similar reading approach, one that’s more interested in the overall flow of story and less in hooks, turning points, climaxes, etc.

Things That Strange & Norrell Doesn’t Do Well

It’s impossible to find a real hero. There are people you want to do well and people you want to see stopped. It’s especially hard before Jonathan Strange shows up. Most of the time you can root for Jonathan Strange in general, but it’s not until the last 200 pages (hardcover) when things start to come together that you really start feeling excited about his work.

It’s also hard to find a plot that runs all the way through the book. Actually, there is an awesome and intricate storyline. When everything came together near the end, I was very impressed. But unlike in most novels, you can’t really figure out what’s going to happen along the way or exactly where things are going. So it’s not that there isn’t one, it’s that it’s hard to find.

I think that’s in part because the major motivating crisis happens about 2/3 of the way into the book (and it’s nearly 800 pages in hardcover) rather than somewhere near the beginning. And until that point we only have vague ideas of things that need to be fixed.

In Crime and Punishment, we discover Raskalnikov’s problem (first crisis) early on, then we see him plan, then we see him execute the plan, then we see him deal with the consequences of his plan. Or in Jayne Eyre, we want her to be safe from the school, then we want her to find love, then we deal with the attic crisis, then we want her to be happy again. This story just doesn’t flow like that.

Fantastic Things in Strange & Norrell

Fantastic plot. As I said above, the pacing isn’t gripping but I really enjoyed the plot. Once we hit the last 200 pages where everything comes together, I couldn’t put it down. And I appreciated everything about the book up to that point even more as I saw threads interweaving and the pattern became obvious. Brilliant stuff.

Writing style. I love Susanna Clarke’s voice in this book. It feels 19th century, but it doesn’t feel forced. The footnotes were fun, and contributed to understanding the completely different world we were in.

Alternate history. The alternate history was coherent. That’s really important in a book like this. And it was an interesting alt history too, not just a few small changes to what actually happened. The magic was fun.

To Read or Not to Read?

Confession time: It took me over 2 months to read this. I’d read a couple chapters and put it down. Then pick it up again and go for a few more. Thank goodness for renewals!

But I’m really glad that I did. There’s a whole new big world in my head that I’m still putting together. There was something all along that told me to keep picking it up.

So I recommend reading it. But I also recommend not pushing yourself too hard. Know that the first two hundred pages are the hardest to get through (though the first twenty are exciting because you’ve got a whole new world). The middle section is interesting. A lot happens and you’re not quite sure what’s pulling it all together. And the last two hundred are engaging.

If you like Russian novels, you’ll probably do a lot better with it than if you hate them.

Anyone else care to weigh in?

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