Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I’ve always been a big fan of Victorian Literature (Dickens, Eliot, Austen, et al.). It’s the charm and efficiency of the narrative that appeals to me. Often those stories feature sensational events and manage to tug on your heart strings, while being conveyed through a casually elegant language, and I love how those authors managed to accomplish that. I picked up J.S & N because it was described as a Victorian/Gothic story crossed with historical fiction, two of my favourite genres. While I’m sorry to say that I was disappointed in that respect, the novel did enough to give me a satisfying experience.

I say ‘disappointed’ because the novel isn’t truly Victorian nor like historical fiction in a traditional sense, and it’s not that they go half-and-half between them either. This is a fantasy novel, containing elements of other two genres. It resembles Victorian literature in the mannerism of its characters, but the obvious focus of the novel is its plot (both the overarching plot of magic in England and the personal struggle of Strange dealing with the antagonist). A Victorian novel usually focuses on its characters, their experiences, and how who they are and what they’re going through is a result of Victorian society. This novel does not do that. The story is also framed during the Napoleonic Wars and the Duke of Wellington is an important character in the story, but this historical aspect is not critical to the plot. You can replace the time period and still have the overall story in tact (which is a Faerie messing around in human affairs). It is true that being set in England gives the story the potential to play on its history specifically, but I believe Merlin is mentioned only once (and probably in footnotes) and the rest of the major historical magicians are purely imagined.

I do not want to say that the story fails in being a Victorian or historical fiction novel, because in my opinion it never tried to be either. I get the feeling the book has been marketed as such because those are two familiar genres with legitimate sections in bookstores all over the world. I would categorize this book as being historical fantasy, with an emphasis on the second half of that title. This is because this book resembles the structure of a modern fantasy (akin to Stephen King and Neil Gaiman), but just so happens to be set in the 19th century.

When I accepted this fact I was able to enjoy the story more. It was in chapter sixteen that I became invested with the story, when the character of Stephen Black became entangled within the schemes of gentleman with the thistle-down hair. It was at this point of the story that something felt seriously wrong, and that the characters were truly in danger. The descriptions of the transformation of the Pole residence are eerie and mysterious, and succeeded in drawing me in. I don’t know why, but when I read how Stephen Black stumbled into the Faerie world, I was hooked. I wondered more about how this world worked, I wanted to know why it was happening, and I wondered if Mrs. Pole and Stephen Black would be able to escape. I think the narrative played a key role in drawing me in. The descriptions were very well-written, and while it may be difficult to convince readers that a character has accidentally found himself in a magical new world, Ms. Clarke does it with ease. It also helps that Stephen Black is an easily likable character.

Following this, a huge chunk of the novel is devoted to developing Strange’s character. It was entertaining seeing how magic worked and what it did to help solve the characters’ problems. A political setting helped to up the ante, and made every scene feel urgent and important. I also thoroughly enjoyed the one chapter devoted to Strange’s visit to the mad king, and wished there was more done with it. However, the road that the novel takes is an intriguing one in of itself, though the climax is oddly subdued. Strange and Norrell play a part in the antagonist’s downfall, but they are not involved directly and the whole thing feels like an accident, which is a disappointment in some sense given the length and aspirations of the novel. However, the author does a good job setting the stage, so it’s not exactly a deus ex machina.

The greatest strength of this novel is its world and the plot, but in the end I couldn’t help but wish for more. The title of the novel is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though I doubt I’ll remember either character in the years to come. Mr. Norrell especially feels like a lost opportunity. His character is given the spotlight in the beginning, and then he is forgotten for most of the novel up until near the end. He never felt like a protagonist, nor was he ever likable. I kept waiting for a moment where I could sympathize with or care about him, but it never came. His character was set up brilliantly; he had his quirks, was completely distinguishable from every other character, and had committed an act that was the result of his character’s flaw, triggering the events of the novel. But in the end, this half of the book’s namesake became just a prop in the plot’s resolution. Additionally, Strange and Norrell were meant to contrast one another, to be rivals with a love-hate relationship, but unfortunately the gentleman in the thistle-down hair interrupts this narrative, and they end up working together despite the entire novel setting them up to be the antithesis of one another. I don’t want to say it felt cheap or misleading, because it isn’t. The author chose to go in a certain direction with her story, and it was nice and pleasant, but I wish she had taken another path, just to see what would’ve happened.

Finally, a note on the style of the novel. Throughout the book there are fictional footnotes every few pages that serve to complement the main story. This was a worthy feature of the novel, in my opinion, as it does much to expand the book’s magical setting, and to suspend reader’s disbelief. Happily, there are a few genuinely interesting anecdotes contained within these footnotes, and they never feel presumptuous nor snobby on the author’s behalf. Given that knowledge and books play a significant role within the story, it feels appropriate that these footnotes exist, and it successfully gives the book itself its own character.

I would recommend Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell if you are a fan of fantasy novels, but not so much if you’re into Victorian literature or historical fiction. The narrative is smooth, and there’s a worthwhile lesson in fantasy-world building that comes along with the book. It’s a long read, but what you get is an entertaining and tidy little story set within a world that has been painted vividly and filled with life and a convincing world-history.

This has been a gamobo review.

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