Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: A Fantastic Universe and a Story Lost Within it

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I really was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to finish this novel. Not because it wasn’t good, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a good book, but because the novel just doesn’t align with my own interests. Clarke has an immense talent for replicating the manner of writing in which the book is taking aim at (think Jane Austen), but this falls short of being that interesting to me. In the end it is simply a great talent but a trick that grows a little stale as the book progresses. There is only so many times a character can respond to another with “Excellent!” before I’m bored with it and frustrated by the fact that there is no real way to discern how the character is actually delivering the word. Yet, this is a silly reason to dislike a book, and it is very far down the list of reasons why I would or would not recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. 

If you do not know, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a thoroughly English book in which two men attempt to revive the ancient practice of English Magic. Strange and Norrell are the names of the magicians, but they exist alongside a large host of other characters, all unique and well-crafted. The novel moves along based upon the temperament of the two magicians: Mr. Norrell the most annoying man on the face of the earth and Jonathan Strange the kind of man who doesn’t look at explosions. As such, Strange is much more enjoyable to read and one would find it difficult to not take his side in the ensuing conflict that the two characters find themselves in. And the conflict itself is the best part of the novel, but it takes far too long to get to. Once it arrives it serves only as the book’s end, giving the distinct feeling that it could have come much sooner or much later, depending upon the whim of the author.

Indeed, this is the main problem with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The book dances around the conflict with shiny writing and general world-building, but none of it really has any effect on the ending. When you’re reading you don’t, during the final scene with Strange and Norrell, of something that has previously happened in either of their lives. Volume III of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell could easily serve as a really fun stand-alone work. Instead we spend 500 pages waiting for the story to get to the point. Whether or not you will like the book depends entirely upon if you enjoy the scenes Clarke creates to show off Strange’s magic in the Napoleonic Wars. If you find the scenes entertaining then you will enjoy this book. It will likely enthrall you in its world. Yet if you’re like me, you might find it difficult to slog through these chapters as they feel like filler. Like an anime that doesn’t want to get on with it already. These chapters are the longest in the entire novel. We get brief glances back to the Macguffin of the story (a fairy released by Mr. Norrell that begins enchanting people and potentially causing the downfall of England), but for the most part the book spends its time with war scenes that really don’t seem to have any consequence to the actual plot.

Added to the feeling of how bloated the novel feels at times are footnotes that just don’t work that well. These footnotes are typically meant to build the world. We have legends and lore. Stories of fairies gone awry, etc. Yet with exception of one or two, all of them are extremely inconsequential. If you never read a single footnote in this book you would not understand it any less. That is crux of my issue with them here. Unlike some, I really love footnotes, but I want them used well. Here, they just don’t appear to be. All too quickly I found myself wondering why I was reading these footnotes. Then I wondered why they were there.

Perhaps this is just the pitfall of a world-building novel, but the question why really doesn’t seem to get answered much in the book, and not in some cute pomo Pynchon manner. In the end, I don’t really know the why of this book. I don’t see what it is commenting on except in brief moments where it tackles racism or sexism. I wonder if the point of it all just was crushed beneath the sheer scope and plot of the novel. Most frustrating of all is attempting to understand why the characters behave like they do. Why does Mr. Norrell have this unhealthy obsession with ending the study of theoretical magic? Why does he do any of things he does? These aren’t answered adequately. We have a couple brief moments of Norrell admitting fault and explaining himself and they are wonderful. Yet they don’t cover enough. I’m decently curious as to whether all my questions are answered with simple familiarity with the understanding of how an English gentlemen was expected to act in the early 19th century, but as such I just found some elements of the book to be lacking .

But in the end the question is whether or not Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is worth reading. And the answer to that is a hard maybe. I certainly won’t be rereading ever, but I also have to admit that the book simply wasn’t my style. Perhaps The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter will be the only two fantasy and adventure stories I really ever enjoy. So far I’ve essentially had an extreme dislike of all the other books written within the same vein. Once again, I just didn’t find the story that captivating. I wanted more.

Recommended to: Anyone who earnestly just loves an exciting adventure or fantasy story. While certain aspects of this book will bog you down, I would imagine the satisfying lore that is included within the footnotes will endear you to the book.

Avoid as forgetting to unplug your telephone jack from the wall during a lightening storm and subsequently learning to live as the pilgrims once did: without internet: If heavy plot is not your thing then you probably, like me, won’t like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

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