Book #8: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke


  My affair with this book began many Christmases ago. Well, I guess before that. It had been out a couple of years; I'd heard about it, picked it up; thumbed its fresh Bloomsbury pages under my nose. I'm pretty sure I bought my copy at Gatwick airport before leaving England the last time - a consolation purchase after being served my ten-year ban in 2007. I don't trust my memory much (more on that in a moment), but that feels accurate.

  In any case, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell made my "book sense" tingle. It felt, in my hand, like a book written purely for the kind of reader I secretly wished I was: the species of bookworm who - far from running round playing shows, meeting hundreds of people while expending vast amounts of social energy in an accelerated, time zone-hopping daze - is most contented and completed when staying home, in a solitudinal pool of armchair light, communing with a book.

  It's really only at Christmas time, or when I'm sick, that I can pretend to be a bookworm of this variety. So it was over Christmas, in Georgetown, ten years ago - fire crackling, dog asleep on the floor - that I was able to let myself disappear into the fantastically bookish world of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

  Unfortunately, I'm a very slow reader - yet another way in which I'm not the sort of bookworm I envy. My girlfriend, for instance, reads at approximately five times my speed. Even in my own head I read at roughly the pace at which I would read the words aloud - which is good for savouring passages, and for remembering particularly sweet phrases - but not so good for gettin' 'er done. Being a slow reader has often left me feeling like a "fake reader" - like maybe I talk about reading books better than I can actually read them.

  So sure enough, I ran out of Christmas before I could finish Jonathan Strange. As it is at holidays, I'd arrived with the fantasy of reading four or five books (as my girlfriend would have), but with the actual result of only getting two thirds of the way through one (albeit 1006 pages). Nothing leaves an insecure bookworm at lower ebb than not even managing to finish one book over Christmas. 

  The crazy thing is, I loved it. LOVED it!

  It brings magic (and the dramatic rivalry of two of England's greatest magicians) into the real world, placing their magic against real history; in this case, the Napoleonic wars, with The Duke of Wellington himself enlisting Jonathan Strange to assist in his campaigns). Not to mention appearances later on, in Venice, by Lord Byron.

  But not only does this story build magic into history and alongside historical personages, it builds a world in which magic is - or was, centuries before, until Strange and Norell bring it back - part of the known fabric of England itself.

  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a deliciously bookish story, because not only do the magicians rely on books of magic to work their spells, but the whole book is gratifyingly annotated by its author, Susanna Clarke, who cites an entire world of historical volumes on magic, all of her own "world-building" creation. If you like stories that set you loose in a world not quite our own, and then let you catch up to it as you go, you will LOVE Strange & Norrell

  In fact, if you like to read, and you like magic, and you like stories which mix the actual with the fantastic - then I can't imagine you NOT loving Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Also, it was made into a seven-part BBC series which, although it takes some liberties with the novel, was satisfying enough that I bought it and have watched it twice.

  Speaking of which, I've now nearly read this book twice, considering I was two thirds of the way through before I first put it down. And here's the crazy thing: although I was absolutely hanging on its every twist and turn that Christmas in Georgetown, when I recently returned to it, I could barely remember a single thing. It came back to me as I reread, but really - isn't it crazy how short and totally unreliable our little human memories are? Which is a gift, I suppose, to us as readers - I mean, not only do we get to reread our favourite stories, but in a lot of cases, we get to read them again for the first time.

  Which explains why these magicians rely so much upon their books (with one of the them being carried about in a most unusual way).

  All in all, a perfect example of what this 100 Book Blog project is all about: a hefty volume which initially was nothing but pure, anticipated joy in my hand, and which after I failed to finish it, daunted me for years - and which now (having read it nearly twice) is a source of delight whenever I think of it, and a book which I consider a dear friend. It was a roundabout way to finally love this (most lovable) book, but it was worth it. I hope you get to curl up with it too.

4 comments

  • Japhy Sullivan

    Japhy Sullivan The cliffs of insanity

    Growing up I read almost nothing but Fantasy novels but I had to stop reading them a few years ago for much the same reasons as you've talked about quitting Stephen King. I still love the stories and the worlds and the character's magic, but when re-reading old favorites so often the quality of the writing of the book on the page doesn't measure up to the book that exists in my head. Which is why I was so delighted when I came across Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It felt like I was rediscovering a book I had loved as a kid, except the book on the page was the book in my head.

    Growing up I read almost nothing but Fantasy novels but I had to stop reading them a few years ago for much the same reasons as you've talked about quitting Stephen King. I still love the stories and the worlds and the character's magic, but when re-reading old favorites so often the quality of the writing of the book on the page doesn't measure up to the book that exists in my head. Which is why I was so delighted when I came across Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It felt like I was rediscovering a book I had loved as a kid, except the book on the page was the book in my head.

  • Leah Adams

    Leah Adams Seattle

    It's funny how mentions overlap. I hadn't heard of Susanna Clarke until two days ago, and now two recommendations back to back. I love big books, and worlds that intersect. This will go on my reading shelf to be enjoyed very slowly over months. I'm 3/4 of the way through a 1000 page book I've been reading since February. It's delicious and I don't want it to end.

    It's funny how mentions overlap. I hadn't heard of Susanna Clarke until two days ago, and now two recommendations back to back. I love big books, and worlds that intersect. This will go on my reading shelf to be enjoyed very slowly over months. I'm 3/4 of the way through a 1000 page book I've been reading since February. It's delicious and I don't want it to end.

  • Corin Raymond

    Corin Raymond

    Japhy, I I felt the same way - Strange and Norrell made me feel like a kid again, but with a book that I can admire, endlessly, as an adult. So satisfying! I would say the same of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake. Are there any other books you can think of that made you happy in this kind of way?

    Japhy, I I felt the same way - Strange and Norrell made me feel like a kid again, but with a book that I can admire, endlessly, as an adult. So satisfying! I would say the same of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake. Are there any other books you can think of that made you happy in this kind of way?

  • Corin Raymond

    Corin Raymond

    Leah, yeah, it always seems that when you first hear about something, for whatever reason you're bound to hear about it again almost immediately. It's as if the universe whirs into gear: "Ah! The Susanna Clarke awareness has been initialized! Commence reminder sequence!" Anyway, glad I could be the first reminder. So what's the 1000 page book you're savouring?

    Leah, yeah, it always seems that when you first hear about something, for whatever reason you're bound to hear about it again almost immediately. It's as if the universe whirs into gear: "Ah! The Susanna Clarke awareness has been initialized! Commence reminder sequence!" Anyway, glad I could be the first reminder. So what's the 1000 page book you're savouring?

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