Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

This has been the longest year of my life, and it’s not yet October. I could tell you the details, but I usually shy away from that; I mean, we’ve never shaken hands, bought each other coffee, or sung a hymn together. We wouldn’t recognize each other if we were in the same room. But I don’t mind talking about books with you, and that brings to this 800-pager.

My hardbound copy is like this but red.

I started reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Suzanna Clarke early in the year, and though I liked the story, I put it down in favor of — I don’t know, maybe I was making money at something (that’s a nice thought). The story progresses slowly, not diverting onto rabbit trails so much as taking time to set new stages and bring in dialogue. There was a chapter toward the end I thought could be cut to a couple sentences, but most of the time I wished the pace would pick up even though I was enjoying the scene before me.

Of course, I’m not like Lars. On Monday he can tell you he’s reading a 3,000 page book that will take him a while to review, and on Friday you’ll have that review. I take eight months to get through 800 pages. That’s not a tweetable goal. Follow me on Goodreads; you won’t be inspired.

The novel begins with Mr. Norrell, who wants to crush the dreams of all would-be magicians and remake English magic after his own image. He is naturally a stuffy academic in his manner of thought and speech, but his passion is to use magic properly and practically, keeping it away from theoretical magicians who do nothing but talk over poorly written books. He opposes people like the president of the York Society of Magicians, who says, “Magicians … study magic which was done long ago. Why should any one expect more [that is, to do magic today]”?

Norrell gains a good reputation and important connections in London before Strange shows up, and in advancing his career he sets the plot of the whole book in motion. This is an laudable point in Clarke’s storytelling. She could have had the rise of Norrell and Strange’s fame in England be the provocation for the villains that come; instead she has Norrell conduct a work of magic he knows to be risky that opens the door to a great deal of trouble.

The revelation of that trouble to readers (characters are kept in the dark) is quite compelling, the kind of tension that spurs continued reading while shortening my tolerance for diversions in the story. Strange’s adventures in Spain are fine reading, but I was drumming my fingers a bit because I wanted to know what could be done for the delightful Lady Pole back in England.

Clarke frames up her novel in a way that could be characterized as clich├ęd: she uses a prophecy, but hers isn’t “what was sundered and undone, shall be whole – the two made one.” Her prophecy sounds like a long-winded rant for a fantasy king of long ago. When a scoundrel delivers it, Norrell dismisses it as soon as he recognizes it from his historical reading, but the reader won’t know if this poem is on target until hundreds of pages later. It had me wondering if our heroes would pull through in the end. At that point Clarke uses it as a guide for progress as the stakes get high and our heroes scramble to save themselves.

It’s a strong story that’s rewarding to read, but slow readers like me may want to take it up during an easy year.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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