Friday, August 10, 2012
Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
At the turn of the 19th century, it seems like no magic remains in England. But then a practicing magician named Mr. Norrell turns England upside-down when he performs the first bit of magic in England in several centuries, and immediately shoots his way up the social ladder. Norrell wants to use magic to do England good, but he’s particular about how to regulate magic—which is why the sudden appearance of a second English magician, the charismatic Jonathan Strange, rocks Norrell to his core.
Whereas Norrell’s squirrelly looks and socially awkward demeanor are a disappointment as the face of magic, Strange’s carriage and behavior earn him the goodwill of a fair number of Englishmen. Yet even as tensions between Norrell and Strange continue to develop, a long-simmering magic plot to take over England keeps threatening to come to light.
Widely regarded as one of the best works of the modern fantasy canon, JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL was a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. And while every one of these 1000 or so pages is evidence of literary brilliance, it wasn’t something I was fully emotionally invested in. Still, though, I’m glad I finally read it.
Susanna Clarke takes the subgenre “Regency fantasy” to a whole new level with her superb command of that time period’s language. Think Austen with a heavy dose of magical elements: not only was the language reminiscent of Regency England times, but Austen’s almost insidious portrayal of ridiculous people had a heavy showing in JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL. While Strange and Norrell are arguably the main characters of the eponymous novel, we readers don’t really like them the way we usually do protagonists, because most of them are not good people: Norrell in particular manipulate nearly everyone out of fear of a loss of influence, meanwhile letting his even-less-appealing “friends” manipulate him in turn. All the unsavory characters in the book make Jonathan Strange look very good indeed, but he’s no real “wounded hero,” just another self-centered guy who does not give enough consideration to others in his life.
That, I guess, is what ultimately disappointed me about this book: it doesn’t break any conventions or tread new ground in terms of genre or sociohistorical issues. Clarke crafts an alternate, magician-focused history for England, but, with the exception of head-scratchingly long footnotes showing just how in-depth Clarke has got with her alternate history creativity, JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL didn’t blow me out of the water with originality in its fantasy genre.
Additionally—and this may just be me—I found it a bit off-putting how small a role women played in the novel. For a book written by a female author, I had expected a bit more subversion of historical attitudes toward the role of males vs. females in society; yes, the book doesn’t attempt to focus on the inequality and tensions between different parties, but I was surprised that the book didn’t take such a step with potentially strong and interesting female characters such as Arabella Strange and Mrs. Pole. No, at the end of the day, things and people seemed to be pretty much what they had been before the book started, which results in reader’s confusion along the lines of, “I just spent three weeks reading 1000 pages…and did anything significant really happen?” Hrmph.
So, in some ways, reading JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL was for me like reading a classic that the “great authorities of literature” say is a must-read but on a personal level was a slog to get through. While I certainly appreciated Clarke’s Austenian writing style, I closed the book realizing that 500 pages could’ve been cut out and I would have thought nothing was amiss.
Cover discussion: Win! Straightforward. Iconic. Recognizable.
Tor Books / Aug. 1, 2006 (reprint) / Mass Market Paperback / 1024pp. / $9.99