So, I did finish my first year of seminary this Spring, but probably my most exciting accomplishment of 2017 so far has been finishing this book! Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (by Susanna Clarke), oh the journey we have had. Last summer, I checked you out from the library too optimistically close to the start of the semester. I had to renew you twice and give you back without having gotten a hundred pages in. One day, my friend sent you to me as an encouragement, and I tried starting once more during the school year, but no dice.
So, it did take me a couple of weeks, but come on the thing was 1006 pages long. It was a lot, and I wont say that I loved every minute of it because there were a lot of minutes, and I got tired of how long it was. This was mostly because I was anxious to start reading another book, which I broke down and did, vowing that it would not deter me from my purpose with the magicians.
This is a book worth reading. (I mean it! In person, I have trouble conveying enthusiasm in recommendations because either I don’t want you to see how much I love it or I don’t want you to think that it’s too hyped and feel cynical or I just am not that comfortable with you yet. But I mean it!) I’m going to say some negative things about it and some positive things about it, but don’t let the negative things fog you up.
From the outset, after every description told me it was a book about magicians and magic, I had high fantasy expectations. While there is a LOT of magic, it also hints at SO MUCH magic that we never really see up close. Sometimes I felt like Clarke was off having fun in some magical land that she would never describe for me, while I sat in England hearing talk of cool magical things but not experiencing them. Like I said, we get a lot of magic and this is a bit of a ridiculous negative, but I did repeatedly wonder when we were going to dive in beyond the tension of real-England vs. magic-stuff. I don’t know if this will make any sense or how it will sound if you haven’t read the book, but there it is.
Characters can make or break my reading. I didn’t find myself capital-I Invested in any particular character(s). This was a little disappointing. I did like most of them in general…I appreciated them all as characters, but I wanted to really love somebody, and I just didn’t. Fortunately, I did not notice this detracting from my reading in the moment; I noticed it toward the end of the book when I wasn’t sure exactly what to hope for.
I should say that I’m currently watching the mini-series the BBC made, which is on Netflix. Y’all, it is GOOD. If you already know that never in your life will you read this book, you should watch it. If you do want to or think you might want to read the book, I beg you to read it before you watch. I shouldn’t even have told you, because maybe you didn’t know it was an option and I take it back what are we talking about?
Ugh, I can’t help it. In the miniseries, I am finding that I do enjoy some of the characters (I already liked) a lot more. Maybe my imagination wasn’t going far enough with them when I was reading. Along these lines, it also makes my complaint about the role of magic seem even more ridiculous.
What I enjoyed about the characters was their authenticity. Clarke wrote some accurate human beings. Overall, I think we see more of their darkness – what the human mind/heart/will is capable of motivating in the sense of deception or selfishness or curiosity. There is goodness to be found, but it does seem a book that intends, for a while, to bring the reader to despair of the characters and the world. And that really does happen in regards to people and the world – at least it happens in my brain.
There were many clues and hints at later events that appeared in footnotes or in smooth switches to first-person narration. The narrator was a good companion. I aspire to write something so seemingly effortless. But some of the clues made me so eager or had me ready or appeared several times, and the object became less something-suspenseful and more something-long-awaited (perhaps only because I’m impatient).
Clarke’s writing mirrors its setting: the story begins in 1806 in England.
“Clearly such an opportunity as this was scarcely likely to come again; Mr Norrell determined to establish himself in London with all possible haste. ‘You must get me a house, Childermass,’ he said. ‘Get me a house that says to those that visit that magic is a respectable profession – no less than Law and a great deal more so than Medicine.’
Childermass inquired drily if Mr Norrell wished him to seek out architecture expressive of the proposition that magic was as respectable as the Church?
Mr Norrell (who knew there were such things as jokes in the world or people would not write about them in books, but who had never actually been introduced to a joke or shaken its hand) considered a while before replying at last that no, he did not think they could quite claim that.”
I don’t know what I can reasonably quote without spoiling one part or another. It’s frustrating – I know you would like it. This line stood out as a favorite:
“He had never much cared for the world and he bore its loss philosophically.”
So…think what you will about that. It made me stop and look up at the room and laugh.
I mentioned there were footnotes. Yes. The footnotes throughout were brilliant. Some went on for three or four pages, telling stories about past magicians or describing books the characters referenced – which books of course only exist in the world of Strange & Norrell.
There were real events woven into the storyline (or vice versa), and real people with real roles (one being Lord Byron). This was delightful and super clever. I believe Clarke’s non-writing work has to do with history? This was her first novel, if you can believe that. I do not envy the people who had to write 1-2 paragraph descriptions for the book cover, the back of the paperback, Amazon, etc. Where do you even focus? There’s so much. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m struggling to write about it.
As I said, I am thoroughly enjoying digesting the story in film format now. I have to keep a notebook and pen at the ready for moments when I want to exclaim at something that seems to be happening early or something that DID NOT go down that way in the book or something I like that the series does differently. Nick is watching it with me and wouldn’t be able to handle such outbursts (nor do I want to ruin everything for him). It’s a joy to talk about the intricacies and the meaning with someone else now.
It was somewhat taxing, yet I almost feel the need to turn around and read it again. I do want to read it again eventually, having full knowledge of the story at the outset. I’d like to remember side characters and other things I’m sure I’ve already forgotten.
Sorry if this post seems scattered – I think I have over-caffeinated-brain going on right now. It’s also our last week in Indianapolis, and I am thinking about the things I did and didn’t do and the fact that going back to St. Louis brings some realities to the forefront that I have been glad not to think about for a bit. I am ready, and I’m not ready.