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Thursday, 5 December 2013

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

When I started reading this a couple of months back, I didn't expect that I would end up writing about it on this blog. "Surely I must be the last person in the world to read this book", I thought. "Surely this is one of those mega-successes that has received almost unanimous praise, and nobody needs to hear yet another opinion of how great it is". But as I made progress and worked my way through the chapters, something surprised me. I was struck by the number of people getting in touch on Goodreads, on Twitter, and in real life to ask me how I was finding it. And every single one of them had the same thing to say. "I've been meaning to read that for ages", they'd say. "It's been sitting on my shelf for the longest time and I've heard it's really great. But it's just so big, right?".

So this goes out to the many of you who have been put off reading Susanna Clarke's masterpiece by the sheer heft of it. I understand, I really do - in fact, I probably wouldn't have got around to picking this up had I not swapped my hardback copy for a lighter paperback. But by holding out on this one you are missing out on an absolutely magical read. By the time I finished it, I felt that it wasn't long enough!

We find ourselves in England in 1806, and the country has been a largely magic-free zone for many years. The sole exception to this is Mr Norrell, England's only practising magician. He is a lofty, academic type; he loves attention and laps up any praise and wonder at his magical skills, while at the same time being very cautious and reluctant to share his knowledge lest it fall into the wrong hands. But as his talents become more infamous and demand grows for magical assistance in many areas of society, it becomes clear that there is too much work for one man; Mr Norrell will have to take on an apprentice. Enter Jonathan Strange - a young man whose temperament differs from Norrell's in almost every regard other than his natural aptitude for enchantment. With the number of magicians in London now doubled from one to two, the supernatural forces at work in the city become stronger and stronger, and it isn't long before the men find themselves having to deal with some sinister and otherworldly opposition.

This is just a great book, flawlessly written, and a joy to read from start to finish. As I said above, I was genuinely disappointed to turn the last page and leave Clarke's charming world behind. The London she creates is completely immersive - fantastical and fun as well as being impeccably researched and with enough historical detail to make it believable. It is intimidating, sure, but once you pick it up you realise just how readable and witty the writing is. I struggle to think of anybody who I wouldn't urge to read it. Fans of historical fiction, fantasy, or literary fiction will all be particularly enchanted.

So if you are tempted - and if not, why oh why not?! - please do put your reservations about long books to the side and read this. It is perfect to cosy up with under a blanket on a cold day, and perfect to get lost in at this time of year when reading challenges are winding down and you might have a bit more time to enjoy it rather than worrying about review deadlines or TBR targets. Even better, the cast has recently been set for a forthcoming BBC mini-series which is due to commence filming soon - so get reading the book before all the TV buzz kicks in! You won't regret it.


  1. I never seriously considered reading this book before reading your post about it. So now you have gotten me intrigued and I can see that it is worth a try. However, even so, at this point in my reading, the length is still an issue. I am getting more into fantasy books, between my mystery reading, so I hope I can fit it in someday.

    1. Honestly Tracy, it's soooo good! Definitely give it some consideration. It's funny isn't it, not long ago I would have probably come out and said that I don't like fantasy, but this year I've read really quite a lot of it! Hope you have found some good fantasy reads too.

  2. Oooo! I didn't know they were making a miniseries out of this! Personally, I found the book a bit long - but I'm terrible at reading long books and I think when I read it I was in the mood for a much more fast-paced book. In retrospect, it must have been a powerful book, though, because although I remember struggling through the length, I also am reminded of incidents in the book years later - any book that memorable has a lot of power, as far as I'm concerned.