Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (thoughts on rereading)
I first read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke my sophomore year of college, when I was eighteen. It was February in the Midwest, and I’d just broken up with my boyfriend, and my college’s dean of academics was trying to eliminate the Russian department. Needless to say, it was not a great time. And yet, as soon as I opened this book, all of that fell away. The story, the world, were so detailed, so magical, so utterly delightful that nothing else mattered. And it was long: a thousand blissful pages for me to revel in! And upon rereading it, I feel exactly the same.
If anything, I’m more blown away by Clarke’s achievement. I truly believe that her level of world building and attention to detail and background is at the same level as Tolkien. Just as Lord of the Rings uses a story, the quest to destroy the ring, as a device to present a whole world, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is much, much more than its plot. I imagine this will frustrate some readers: there are a lot of digressions (and footnotes!), much rambling, and a wide cast of characters. For most of the book, the plot is merely a hazy outline: it’s not until towards the end that all of the disparate threads coalesce. Until then, you just have to trust that Clarke is going somewhere. The tone of her prose might also present some problems; the book is set in Georgian England, and the writing reflects that. Clarke is a master of pastiche (rather like A.S. Byatt, or even Wilkie Collins), and she gives her narrator a slightly dry, rather sardonic, academic voice that just feels authentic.
That is to say, I understand that this book isn’t for everyone, I really do. I can see why it might take some ages to finish, or it might bore them to tears. But for me, this book is exquisite, and loveable, and page-turning, and everything-the narrative tone, the footnoted citations, the meandering storylines-combines to enhance the experience. I couldn’t have designed a better book for my personal reading tastes! I spent my reread re-discovering all the nooks and corners of a magical England, longing to meet the Raven King, and grinning at Clarke’s cleverness. I caught up with the characters, who are all so well drawn they’re just like real people, and held my breath again as the gentleman with thistledown hair followed his caprices. As I neared the end, I desperately wished Clarke had another novel out (yes, I’ve read her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and definitely plan to reread it, but I want another fat book), because I couldn’t yet bear to leave the world she’s so fully created. And then I reminded myself I could always just start at the beginning again.
If you haven’t read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and aren’t sure if it’s for you, I urge you to try the first few pages (which you can do quite easily via the internet these days). It’s the kind of book that even a small taste gives you a good idea of the entire thing, so if you find yourself grinning uncontrollably at the opening chapter, do yourself a favour and get your hands on a copy! I know that I won’t be waiting another six+ years for a reread…it’s just too fun and wonderful not to visit in regularly.
Suggested Companion Reads
- The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt (I didn’t blog about this one, but I loved it! And I think with its sprawling focus and fairy-tale themes, it’d make a fun comparison.)
- Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton (More classics-inspired world building! This features a civilisation of dragons and imagines that their society has evolved in much the way Trollope’s Victorian England did.)
- Sorcery and Cecilia by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (If you love the idea of a magical early 19th century England, but want a story with a lighter touch, this is your answer! It’s the first in a trilogy. You’re welcome. ;) )