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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (thoughts on rereading)

November 23, 2011


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. ;) )
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35 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011 6:35 am

    Heh, I was just going to say that this is that rare sort of book where you can basically tell if you’re going to like it by reading the first ten pages or so. Ordinarily I urge people to press on, but with JS&MN, you can tell straight away.

    Have you been surprised by the rereadability of this book? That’s what surprises me! I’ve reread it at least five times, which isn’t, like, loads, but for a book of this massive length it’s sort of a lot. Of course, I have the convenient edition that comes in three paperback volumes in a box, IN A BOX. Which is better.

    • December 15, 2011 11:57 pm

      I was surprised! And five times is too loads: you make me want to only reread so I can get that well acquainted with it. *sigh* Your edition sounds way better than my mass market!

  2. November 23, 2011 6:40 am

    I adore this book, but you’re right, it’s not for everyone. I think if given a chance though it can be. This is also the book where I started to enjoy footnotes; still not completely sold on them for everything but they added so much to this story. Now I’m thinking I may have to add this to my re-read list.

  3. priscilla permalink
    November 23, 2011 7:38 am

    You are tempting me to re-read this book. I loved it so much the first time I read it–it’s truly magical. For such a long book it seems I read it very quickly the first time, because it’s so engrossing. I had just been laid off the first time I read it, and like you, I needed the escape. I have always intended to re-visit it, so perhaps sooner rather than later….

  4. November 23, 2011 8:07 am

    I’m not sure this is for me, but I really want to give it a good go! Probably early in 2012 at this rate, but sooner rather than later.

  5. November 23, 2011 8:14 am

    I’m itching to read this. I looked it up at my local library, but their copies are out or unavailable for the time being. I don’t mind rambling works, so long as they have what you describe: the cleverness, great characters, a whole new geography to discover…

    Maybe I’ll start with Ladies of Grace Adieu first if that one is available.

  6. November 23, 2011 8:31 am

    I first read this when I was pregnant, and it’s one of the books I shelved in a spot just for my daughter – I remember getting excited just thinking about how much she might love it several years down the road! Your post reminds me how much *I* loved it, too – it may get a reread sooner than planned.

    • December 15, 2011 11:55 pm

      Aww: I would have LOVED this when I was 12/13ish as well. :)

  7. November 23, 2011 10:20 am

    I’ve always held off on reading this one simple because of the size-800 pages! But since you and others are saying it’s very readable, perhaps that won’t be a deterrent anymore.

  8. November 23, 2011 10:54 am

    I’m also tempted to re-read! What a great book. :)

  9. Ruthiella permalink
    November 23, 2011 10:55 am

    This book is definitely on my list for 2012. I have a hard copy in great condition that I bought for a buck fifty at the library book sale this year. Long books with meandering stories and tangents…I don’t even have to read the first 10 pages to know I will like it.

  10. November 23, 2011 11:05 am

    You know, I haven’t read this one, but I JUST SAW IT for sale as an e-book. I feel a purchase coming on!

  11. November 23, 2011 11:28 am

    Oh Eva, this post was such a delight! It’s just so fun to be able to actually “feel” another person’s love for a book or song or whatever through their words. And I could definitely feel your love here. I admit that while I’ve owned this one for a while now, I’ve never had the guts to even pull it off the shelf. It just seems like one of those books that deserves bigger chunks of time than I have to give right now in my life, if that makes any sense.

    • December 15, 2011 11:55 pm

      Thank you Debi! And that does make sense. Your life is SO busy, this book might just require too much at the moment.

  12. November 23, 2011 1:05 pm

    I haven’t read the Jo Walton but have read and LOVED all the others. I agree, the world of Jonathan Strange is marvellous and absorbing. I read this one a few years ago now, in a daze — work and everything else was something I got through just so I could get home and pick it up again ;)

  13. November 23, 2011 4:06 pm

    Glad the book brought you so much pleasure for the second time!

  14. scribeswindow permalink
    November 23, 2011 4:56 pm

    This book was a re-read for me also, however unlike yourself I couldn’t read it the first time I tried. The second time I was pregnant with my second child, and maybe just that slowed down pace of being at home allowed me to appreciate it all that more. And what a book it was in the end. I too enjoyed the author’s voice, her attention to detail and that Austen era of writing. But so different to Austen. :)

  15. November 23, 2011 5:10 pm

    I really want to read this and think about starting it often, but I admit the sheer size gives me pause. I have a feeling that it’s the sort of book that once I start I could happily lose myself in (all the better if you compare it to Wilkie Collins!). I’ve heard Sorcery and Cecilia is good, too (another one to look for). I may have to make this one of my reads next year since I love your enthusiasm for it.

  16. November 23, 2011 5:43 pm

    I picked up this book ages ago because I had heard it described as a Harry Potter for adults, but I’m not sure that I think that’s an accurate description! Alas, I’ve never actually read it, mostly because I just get bogged down, and have never made it past the first chapter. A friend of mine had a bet with another friend regarding this book: whoever read it first would be taken out for drinks that the other person had to buy! I don’t remember which one of them won the bet, but I do know that right now I am the only person I know who bought this book who still hasn’t read it… I normally shy away from chunksters like this, which I think is why I’ve not read it. The style is something I am ok with (or so I think), but I guess if I try it again and find the first chapter unbearable, I’ll know it’s not for me.

    • December 15, 2011 11:54 pm

      LOL I think that’s a pretty awful description, actually!

  17. November 23, 2011 8:16 pm

    Yay glad to hear this is superb! I picked it up at Border’s closeout sale and hope to dive into it over the winter break or (worst case) summer break.

  18. November 23, 2011 8:35 pm

    I read this book a bit earlier this year. I didn’t really like it. I think if I had read it earlier in life, I would have loved it, but I have just read so much other fantasy that is ten times better. I did keep it, though, in case a reread in the future changes my mind.

    • December 15, 2011 11:53 pm

      Ohhh: what would you suggest that’s ten times better? I’ll add whatever titles you name to my wish list!

  19. November 23, 2011 8:56 pm

    I really wish that I had felt about this book the way that you do. For me it started off so well – and the ideas behind the story were so magical that I just wanted more. I just wish there had been a little bit more editing. If were 3/4 of its length then I would have loved it. I am not sure that I would put it in the same league as Lord of the Rings, but then again I am very biased and wouldn’t put anything in the category of Lord of the Rings because it is so perfect!

  20. November 23, 2011 9:17 pm

    Oh, this reminds me how much I want to read this! I’ve had it sitting on my shelf for years but somehow have never managed to align remembering its existence with time to read it. (And yes, I’ve sampled the first few pages, so I have hopes of loving it.) Hopefully in 2012!

    • December 15, 2011 11:53 pm

      I think you’ll really love it Amanda!

  21. November 24, 2011 9:37 am

    I read it as soon as it came out as well. Was living in the States at the time and got a signed copy when Clarke came to my local B&N in Atlanta. I’ve read “The Ladies” this year and it was a good book, but I mostly saw it as something to keep me entertained until her next novel.

    How likely do you think it’ll be that she writes another book set in this world? (rhetorical or twitter question!). After all, she invested so much in building it, it would be a shame to drop it after only 2 novels.

    • December 15, 2011 11:52 pm

      I saw in an older interview she planned to write another novel in the same world, focusing on the ‘lower’ class. So fingers crossed!

  22. November 25, 2011 6:12 am

    First, happy Thanksgiving! I absolutely loved this book — the audio, for those who are inclined, is fantastic. Can you believe I haven’t read any of the companion books you listed? Shame on me.

    • December 15, 2011 11:51 pm

      I’m curious how the audio handled the footnotes!

  23. November 27, 2011 2:23 am

    My list of books that I am dying to re-read grows daily. I think I need to catch up with all my commitment reads asap and then spend next year on re-reads and new-to-me classics. I want to love reading again and I know that re-reading this book would help!

  24. November 27, 2011 10:25 am

    I think that I might be one of the very few people who simply didn’t get this book. (I have since had the same thing happen when I tried to read The Night Circus that everyone has been going on about.) Actually this also happened with A Visit From The Goon Squad. I read the whole book waiting for something to happen and nothing did, or if it did I missed it. I tried her short stories but had the same problem, I think I wanted it to be more magical or much darker. I am aware this could just be me.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on it though Eva, its amazing how books can take us away from it all at difficult times in our lives.

    • December 15, 2011 11:50 pm

      I have no interest in either of the other two books you mentioned! But yeah, it’s not super magical or dark, so I can see why you wouldn’t be into it.

  25. December 25, 2011 8:06 pm

    I got this for like $1.99 on Kindle during a sale a while back – have to try it, a friend of mine has raved…

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