Tag Archives: Susanna Clarke

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?

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