Would you like to hear a secret?
I didn’t quite finish this month’s book club book in time for this review. Between other fun books, family visits, and work obligations, I simply couldn’t plow through all 1,007 pages of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
If you didn’t finish it, like me, that’s totally fine. I won’t hold it against you. In fact, you can always come back to this book club discussion later and leave your comments at your leisure.
But if you haven’t read it yet, and you don’t know if you want to, feel free to check out my review. I did read enough of the book to get a general feel for the story, so I can let you know what I thought about it. I’ll try to keep my review as spoiler free as possible, too.
The Plot Plods On
Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a fairly recent work, published in 2004. But despite being a modern book, it follows the same style as works by Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and Walter Scott. This old-school language and matter-of-fact tone delighted me as a kid, and it still intrigues me as an adult.
But like so many books written in the Victorian era, this book is a bit of a slow burn in the plot department. Rather than swooping upward into an adventurous climax, the story makes me feel like I’m taking a walk around England. It meanders slowly, occasionally stopping to admire the view, and I have the suspicion that the finish will simply loop back around on itself until it ends back where it began.
However, don’t assume that a slow plot makes for a boring book. Each of the chapters have their own magical mini-adventures that make it an engaging read. Characters rise from the dead, roads disappear and re-appear elsewhere, and fairy beings make a mess of things all around.
These adventures steadily push you through the chapters, so you don’t feel bored. Yet, they never rush you into reading faster than you feel like doing so.
The Characters Feel Two-Dimensional
I love flawed characters with rich histories and in-depth backgrounds. When I read, I don’t just want to watch characters act and perform, I want to see the world from their eyes and feel the impossible from their perspective.
While many of the characters do have their flaws, and Susanna Clarke doesn’t skimp on the history, something about Mr. Norrell and Mr. Strange feel a little off about me. They seem flat, as if I’m watching a cartoon in my head rather than a live-action movie.
Many of the characters only play a passing role in the book, as if we’re only nodding to them as we continue our walk around England. The characters that come along for the ride tend to exhibit stereotyped traits and automatic responses that make them seem like they jumped out of a soap opera rather than real life.
Of course, like many cartoons, I still find them entertaining. I could easily watch them pursue their adventures for hours at a time. So naturally, I’m a little curious about the television series and the movie based on the book.
Have you seen either the show or the movie? What did you think? Let me know if it’s worth watching in the comments below!
The Footnotes Distract Me
Footnotes are a useful tool, and when used creatively, they can add a lot of depth and personality to a story.
In the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, all three books were littered with wonderful footnotes. The footnotes let us know exactly what the character was thinking and gave us tidbits of history without distracting from the rest of the book. (I highly recommend reading this young adult series, by the way.)
But the footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell felt off-putting and annoyingly persistent. Several footnotes spanned multiple pages, so I had to flip back and forth to pick up where I left off.
Additionally, I feel that many of the footnotes could have been removed entirely without making an impact on the story or its characters. Some of the footnotes referenced letters or books that the characters themselves wrote later, but the documentary-style prose made these references feel tedious and dry rather than clever and insightful.
I Enjoyed What I Did Read
I’m over half way through the book, and I hope to finish soon. Though Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell had a few faults, I’m still loving each new page and chapter as they come my way.
If you don’t have a lot of time to read for personal pleasure, you might want to skip the book and try something lighter. However, if you don’t mind picking the book up every now and again and slowly working through the story, you may enjoy it as much as I am.
A Few Questions to Think About
If like to hold your own book club discussions, these questions can help you get the ball rolling:
- Mr. Norrell and Dr. Strange never seem to struggle physically with magic. What consequences do you think they incur instead when they perform spells?
- Many of the footnotes hint at much larger stories not discussed in the book. Do you find these references frustrating or intriguing?
- The narrator in the book seems to be a character in his or her own right. Who do you think the narrator is in relation to the story?
- How do you think each of the characters would respond if similar events had occurred in today’s society?
If you had a particularly good discussion about this book, feel free to share some of the comments, questions, and answers you heard in the comment section below. I’d love to see what you thought of the book!
What’s Happening Next Month?
Are you still keeping up with my book club? If so, next month’s discussion will be about The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton. I’ll hold the discussion on April 1st, hopefully no pranks or surprises will interfere with the post.
You can buy the book from Amazon for about $10 if you choose the new paperback version. But used copies sell for much less.
Free versions are available through various websites, too. A quick Google search should bring you quite a few options to choose from.