If there is a book for every person, there is also a time for every book. Five years after I first tried to read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, I finally finished (and loved) the book. Of all the times I tried to read it, this was the perfect time. This is just the sort of book that deserves to be read at the right time; Susanna Clarke worked on the novel for 10 years, after all.
I first tried reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in early 2011. The book wasn’t exactly a page-turner, but I was enjoying it well enough until a tornado ripped through our neighborhood in April 2011. I didn’t have the time or energy to read anything for months. By the time I got back into my reading groove, I’d forgotten enough of the book that I needed to start over. I purchased a new copy to replace the one damaged in the tornado and…it sat on my bookshelves for years. I’d come across the book from time to time and be filled with a mixture of guilt (my original copy was a gift) and malaise. So it was that when I committed to Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge this year, I knew that I’d be reading this book for “a book you previously abandoned.” I’d heard the audio version is fantastic, so I thought a change of medium might do the trick.
And did it ever? I’m pretty stingy with five-star ratings, but I thought Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was pretty close to perfect. It is a story of English magic more than anything else. England has been without practical magic for centuries, so gentlemen (theoretical) magicians spend their time reading and writing about magic (as opposed to actually doing anything). The story follows a whole cast of characters: Mr. Norrell, the first magician in England able to actually perform magic in centuries; Jonathan Strange, his distracted and charming pupil (and then rival); Lady Pole, brought back to life by Mr. Norrell but now plagued by a mysterious ailment; Stephen Black, a servant in the Sir Walter Pole’s household inseparably entwined in the magic that brought his mistress back to life; John Uskglass, the mysterious and ancient Raven King of the North; and the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, the faerie responsible for much of the book’s mischief and magic.
I have heard it said that the book takes 1000 pages to tell a 100-page story. I can see how it feels that way. The action builds up very gradually. Instead of one or two plot lines, there are easily 7 different stories that slowly build up to one conclusion. Case in point: after Mr. Norrell performs a bit of magic that causes the statues in an accent church to come to life, Clarke spends a few pages another instance of statues enchanted in an attempt to uncover the truth behind a murder hundreds of years before. If I was trying to hurry through the book, that might have annoyed me. Since I was enjoying it so much, I was happy for another storyline to weave its way into the tale. It felt like standing at the base of a Roman aqueduct in Spain and imagining all those stones had seen.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is neither a plot-driven nor character-driven book. If anything, it is a world-driven book. I don’t mean pages and pages of descriptions of how the economy or magic system works; I mean that each scene adds another layer to Clarke’s picture of a magical 18th century England. This is certainly not a book to be consumed on a single airplane flight. It took me almost a month to get through my combination of the audio and print, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I bet it’s even better the second time through, and I don’t plan to wait another five years to find out if my hunch is correct.
I would recommend this to: anyone needing a luxurious fairy tale, complete with ancient histories and curses. If you think you might enjoy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I can’t recommend the audio version enough.