Book review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a really long book. I don’t say so as a criticism, more as a warning to readers for the experience to expect.

If I had to describe this to someone, I’d call it “Middlemarch with magic, but mostly about men. Not a lot happens.” Again, not a criticism. Middlemarch is one of the most important novels in the English language, full of deep thematic layers and characterization that change and shift as one rereads from different perspectives. Arguably, not a lot happens in Middlemarch. And yet, the portrayals of the shifts in lives lived are seismic.

This novel is similar. I began reading it as an ebook, then switched to a paper copy because the footnotes were much easier to navigate in paper. (Also, the paper copy is printed in a period appropriatesque Baskerville font). The irony of needing to switch formats is extra rich, as this novel includes lots of 19th century printing jokes (including ascribing several seminal magic books to George Eliot’s publisher).

This is a slow novel. It is, like the Victorian literature it is aping, structured as though it was being serialized and the author was paid by the page. Linguistically sharp and in the Victorian mode, this is a novel about the return of English Magic, and long-lost connections to Faerie. It is also about human folly despite intent–how we treat each other well (or don’t), how we hurt each other (or don’t), and the ways in which we feel safe (or don’t), all exacerbated by magical access.

This is not a plot heavy work; big battle scenes are not laid out in great detail, and much of the magic is described through the perspective of the caster. For Norrell, it’s a lot of dry scholarly references; for Strange, it it instinct and effect, with little explanation of the mechanisms. The central conflict of the novel is that neither Norrell nor Strange can be happy or truly effective without the other’s approach to magic, despite the fact that they do not get on particularly well.

So, if you are looking for something contemplative and slow, with a lot of wry commentary on human nature, this is for you. If you want whiz-bang action, not so much.

I reread Middlemarch every 10 years or so, and get something different from it every time. I suspect this novel has the same capacity, but I won’t be able to tell for another decade.

View all my reviews

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About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a five time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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