December Bookclub Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Tuesday 30 December 2014 by

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke, Book, BloomsburyJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Published by Bloomsbury

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me.

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.


It has taken me absolute years to finally get around to reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. A large part of it was down to the fact that it sat at a doorstopping 1006 pages. Another part of it came down to my penchant for shiny new titles.

But here we are – a thousand+ pages later and I have AT LAST read it! And I’ll be honest – it’s not totally what I expected. I expected more of an adventure, some high jinks and a magical face-off. But it was much more sedate than that, with footnotes and rambling explanations aplenty. But what it did have in abundance was humour. This is a hilarious book, but with a more subtle kind of humour than we’re used to.

Of all the Bookclub picks I’ve chosen this year, I guess this one would be the most disappointing, in that it didn’t fulfil expectations, but it was never a bad book to read. It was a long book, and at moments I felt that the footnotes thing was a bit overdone, but it never failed to be entertaining. Norrell was suitably unpleasant and Strange was suitably loveable, and the storyline(s) were suitably brilliant.

It never felt like it was too long and badly edited, far from it, which is rare in long books. It felt, in fact, that it could have been longer. It is telling that this book is being made in to a TV series, because there are so many tributaries to follow, and there is an even exploration of all, with the threads neatly tied up and nothing left confused. But there was something lacklustre about parts of the book, and it made for disjointed reading at times. You had to remain faithful that the book would remain true to itself and get back to the point, which, without fail, it did.

I make it sound like I didn’t like the book, and I will protest that actually I really enjoyed it, and it has made me more excited for the TV series to see how it is brought to the screen. If anything, Clarke’s rendering of characterisation is pure class, and you can feel the building and releasing of tension just as she intends it. If you need any demonstration on how to write good intrigue, then look no further. The whole you-know-what-they-know-but-they-don’t-know-what-he-knows play is done to perfection, and you can feel the frustration rising as the characters follow the wrong path.

But, if we started the year on a high note (Burial Rites), we perhaps could argue that this was the bum-note of 2014: not all it cracked up to be, but perhaps it had built to mythical proportions whilst sat on my shelf, and therefore I missed half the point. I wait with huge excitement to see the on-screen version in the New Year, because I get the feeling that the filmic quality of this novel is something to be impressed by. It was simply its slightly off-kilter moments that I didn’t enjoy (although, if you want a good representation of subtle and effective humour, this is your book). A partially-dazzled mid-range read.

What did you think of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?

January’s House of Blog Bookclub is the hugely anticipated The Life I Left Behind by Colette McBeth! Tweet your thoughts through the hashtag #HoBBookclub on Twitter or write on the wall on the House of Blog Facebook page.

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