Strange, Norrell and Clarke

20 Jul

I’ve just finished reading Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – after five years – and, to put it mildly, it was a less than pleasurable experience (as the length of time it took me to get through it perhaps gives away). What made this such a disappointing experience in particular was the fact that I came to the book with such high hopes. For those who don’t know, Strange & Norrell is an alternative history novel set in 19th century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The fantasy twist is that it is based on the premise that magic once existed in England and has returned in the form of the two eponymous wizards. Normally this kind of thing appeals to me greatly. The novel’s critical and commercial success did nothing to rein in my sky-high expectations: it reached number three on the New York Times best-seller list, was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. No less a luminary than Neil Gaiman described Clarke’s book as “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years”. The novel’s impact was compared instantly to that of Lord of the Rings and its writer’s talent to that of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. On second thoughts, perhaps this stream of hyperbole should have hinted that the whole thing sounded too good to be true. So where did it all go so horribly wrong?


There was the potential for this book to have been interesting and original with its themes of magical conflict – between the world of fairies and humans, between human armies using magical weapons, and between its two main wizardly protagonists. I was thinking that it would be Harry Potter for grown-ups, at worst; the fantasy equivalent of War and Peace or Great Expectations, at best. I’m sure that Clarke worked hard on this, after all the book is almost 900 pages long, but the trouble is that, for me, it fails on almost every level. There  is the lack of a plot thread, the absence of a purpose to the main conflict, the dearth of interesting characters, the non-existence of a true antagonist, and so on and so on. Clarke consciously appears to try to pastiche the great literary talents of the 18th and 19th century in her work, but I’m afraid that she just isn’t up to it. The book fails as a faux classic because the author thinks that wordiness, the occasional archaic spelling and cameo appearances by historical characters are what it takes to write like an 18th or 19th century author. But the unfortunate thing for Clarke is that authors like Dickens, Austen, Trollope and the Brontes filled their thick wordy books with enough memorable characters to populate a village, or two, while the characters in Strange & Norrell are emotionless, motivation-less and one-dimensional. Even now I couldn’t really point you to any features that distinguished Jonathan Strange from Mr Norrell.

But my biggest gripe (and this will not surprise regular readers of this blog at all) is that this is yet another example of a major fantasy novel with appalling, borderline non-existent editing. That Strange & Norrell bored me to tears, with the slowest pace I’ve come across in some time, was bad enough. The fact that, hiding somewhere in amongst the never-ending pages of this novel, was a genuine potential classic, makes matters even worse. As I mentioned earlier, I had great hopes for this book at the outset but the trouble was that, once I got into it, the story started to drown in a self-indulgent flood of words. Someone should, at a very early stage, have been sensible enough to take a firm hand and viciously edit the book down into the something vaguely readable. No one did, however, and what we have instead is a book that I kept on reading in the vain hope that something would happen to justify all the hype. I did manage to finish Strange & Norrell but it was a close run thing in the end. The book is also filled with ever-lengthening, completely unnecessary footnotes, which became so irritating that I simply stopped reading them in the end. I very much doubt that I missed anything in doing so – little enough was going on in the novel to justify immersing myself any further in Clarke’s world.

No, it’s safe to say that I really didn’t like Strange & Norrell. Having said that, I’m well aware that I’m in something of a minority. Don’t believe me? Check out amazon and read all those five-star reviews. Then there’s the critical acclaim and all those awards that I mentioned above (which, need I mention it, far exceed the opprobrium that Lord of the Rings received on its release all those years ago – what kind of a world are we living in?!). I talk to people all the time who are massive Strange & Norrell fans – they’re the ones who convinced me to read the book in the first place, damn them! I suppose that this is just an example of one of those ‘marmite’ books, which some people love and others just love to hate. I won’t be recommending reading Strange & Norrell to anyone else anytime soon – unless of course Clarke takes her cue from those classic authors that she likes to imitate so much and releases an ‘abridged’ version of her novel. Oh, and I do have to admit that it might make a good TV series at some point (there, I said something nice after all!).

9 Responses to “Strange, Norrell and Clarke”

  1. colemining July 20, 2013 at 2:10 am #

    I have had much the same experience except that I have yet to make it through the entirety of the novel.

    I pick it up every now and again, hoping each time that it will have more appeal, but so far no go.

    Bang on with your point about the lack of editing. Will try it again in a couple of weeks at the cottage- and see if I have more luck this time out.

  2. preposterousplum July 20, 2013 at 2:34 am #

    I have to agree with you on this one. I didn’t love this book either. It had potential, but was drowning in a bunch of random incidents, and uninteresting characters. The footnotes drove me nuts! They broke up what little flow the story had to begin with and any information important to the history of the world could have been explained in the story itself. If I can’t find a character to connect with, there’s no hope for me liking the story, and I just couldn’t find a character I liked enough. Overall, it was ok, but a bit of a disappointment.

  3. mqallen July 20, 2013 at 3:21 am #

    Thanks for the thoughts on it. I much prefer the critical reviews to the gushing ones. The former actually tell you something about the book. The latter are mostly useless. That said, I may give it a look.

    But when it comes to amazon reviews, I tend to look at the 1-4 stars a lot more than the 5s. Most of the fives are given by people following the pack or uncritical readers.

  4. Alannah Murphy July 20, 2013 at 8:58 am #

    Your review, reminded me of how I felt, about the overhyped “The Historian” a few years ago, there was this great hype, about it being this amazing novel, and it had Dracula in it blah blah blah…I struggled through the entire thing, wondering where the exciting bit was going to arrive, it never did, and to add insult to injury, I found it seriously frustrating that the author, did not tell us what happened to a minor character, who played a big part in the entire book, and then, he just sort of disappears out of the main character’s life, and we never know what became of him. BAD writing…makes me fume. Thanks for this great review, because it is honest points of views like yours, that should be heard more.

    • happyappalachy July 21, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

      I had a similar feeling about The Historian, although I did enjoy the final 80-100 pages when things finally started to happen. However, the first several hundred were an abomination.

  5. Ilene Winn-Lederer July 21, 2013 at 1:00 am #

    Hyperbolic reviews for books that initially appear intriguing are often a red flag for my taste in reading. Makes me wonder how well the box office name writer was paid and/or promised for his/her thrilling blurb. Much like the noisy reviews trumpeted for an artist whose work is pure shock value and little else. Although I try to be patient with books that take a bit of time to make their point and get me hooked, verbose novels like JS&MN pushed the envelope for me as well even as I persevered to the end.
    I could understand this style of writing if the hungry writer were paid by the word. While Dickens indeed received payment per word for his serialized novels, he also managed to make his stories compelling reading. With astute editing, the tale of JS&MN might’ve been told succinctly and perhaps even garnered a movie option. But as it stands, Ms. Clarke will have to dwell less on style than on substance and character development to find me reading her again.

  6. Risa July 21, 2013 at 5:17 am #

    I picked up this book a few years ago after by best friend recommended it to me. Neither of us had heard of this book or the author…it had been pure chance. But we both loved it. I think it is really a matter of taste. About 7 years ago I might not have appreciated it…but now, it IS the sort of book I enjoy reading — slow paced, with good world-building, and a language I thought imitated the Victorians wonderfully. My favourite part WAS the footnotes. It’s where most of Clarke’s faery world building really took place. The history of magic. I always waited for the footnotes (which I never had to wait long for, of course). I really enjoyed how she was able to imbed little faery stories into the major whole. But most of all, I loved how she has managed to capture the true eeriness of Faery.

    Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adiue captures this eerie essence of Faery as well. Personally, I would recommend this book (a book of 8 faery short stories) to someone who has never read Clarke. If they liked it I would commend Strange and Norrell.

    • ashsilverlock July 21, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

      I’m glad someone likes it! I was beginning to wonder…

  7. happyappalachy July 21, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    I completely agree that this book was completely raw and unedited. With a bit (OK, a lot) of editing, it could have been as magical as the reviews would have you believe. I finally finished it last summer, forcing myself over one long weekend in July to push through it. I was thoroughly disappointed. If it had been between 300-400 pages, it would have been much, much better.

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