Book Review: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ (2004)

The short: 3.5/5 ✦. An impressive, well-crafted novel that somehow misses the mark of inspiration.

The long:

I wrestled with myself over the rating of this one because, while it’s a very good book and I acknowledge that, I didn’t “really like” it. I enjoyed it well enough! But for me, it didn’t go above and beyond to the realm of four stars . . . And that makes me wonder upon what criteria should one review a book? On its literary merits? Or simply whether you liked it or not? This is generally true for all critique of the arts; I may think a certain film is finely crafted, even perfect in its expression, but it may not (probably is not) my favorite. Which is veering from the objective to the subjective. But then, one could argue that all critique is subjective, as no one is free of bias. So, it’s a fine balancing act reviewers must perform, and most people have their favorite critics — I myself am partial to FILM CRIT HULK, whom I do not always agree with and our movie tastes vary wildly, but he helps me understand why I like certain movies or why others perhaps put me off; to be blunt, he puts into words what I’m feeling. Basically, when you read reviews for a movie or a book, you’re putting some modicum of trust into what is essentially that person’s opinion and thus acknowledge that it is a review of both the book itself as a text and also how the person felt about it, and I would argue that that, too, is a part of art. Art doesn’t stand alone, it is greatly affected by our reactions, which — positive or negative — are just a valid as the artist’s. Because of your past, you might find something emotionally deep about a painting, but someone else will only see what is on the canvas and nothing more. The same goes for books and movies (and practically anything else). Does your opinion matter more because the painting made you “feel” something? I would say not, but nor does it matter less.

Anyway, this is all to say that I settled on the rating I did because, as someone reviewing books as an amateur, not someone hired to do so on behalf of a larger entity, my personal reaction matters slightly more than how well written the book is. And I would be foolish anyway to even deny the latter. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is written in the Victorian manner  — as other reviewers have noted, very Dickens or Austen. Where it departs, however, is the style; while it is a novel, yes, and fictional, it is written as if this were merely another biography of the great English magicians that you happened to pick up along with The History of English Magic and The Life & Times of Jonathan Strange. It’s even got footnotes! (While we’re on that topic, I had no idea footnotes were so divisive among readers; I personally love them — ever read the Bartimaeus Sequence? those books are great, with footnotes galore.) It’s indeed impressive that Clarke maintained such a rigid format for 800-plus pages, and if you didn’t know better, it does seem as if this all really did happen and we’ve simply forgotten about it via some magical means. The magical elements are also extremely well done. I love me some superpower-esque magic, with fire balls and magic wands, but this is the old way of magic, with fairy servants and recitation of spells in just the right way. It’s pure magic — Strange moves an entire city to America with as little consequence as a few soldiers getting lost. The magic comes from the land itself, not necessarily the magician, and thus makes these beings different than wizards or witches. It’s the magic of nature, albeit mixed in among civilization. Besides perhaps one of the fairies encountered, there’s not really a bad guy nor a good guy; Strange and Norrell are flawed and not terribly likeable. This, of course, makes for interesting characters, but the book’s plot in contrast is fairly thin. It could easily be summed up in a description less lengthy than this paragraph. But then, that’s not really what this novel is about. It’s about these two men and their approach to the return of magic in England. Boiled down, it may not seem all that impressive, and I’m guessing that’s where most people are divided. Yes, it is very long. Yes, it’s tedious, especially if you’re not accustomed to reading this particular old-fashioned style of writing. And the women and POC characters are treated not terribly well — not badly, but in a rather stand-offish kind of way; again, it’s supposed to be set in Victorian times.

And that’s . . . about it. More would spoiling, I think. I’m actually quite keen on watching the BBC adaptation of this novel, because as a “history” book, there’s a lot of telling, and I’d like to see some showing. Overall, there were certain parts that I really quite liked (the magic, Strange himself, the very Englishness of it all), but as a cohesive whole, it left something to be desired. Which, as you know, is just my opinion. 😉

Header image: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, published August 1st 2006 by Tor Books.

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