Literature

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

As I can honestly say this has been one of the greatest, most enjoyable reading experiences of my life, I’ve had a really hard time figuring out where to start.

I’ve had this book in just about every want-to-read list imaginable for years. It’s been in the back of my mind for so long that every now and then something would make it come forward and I’d think upon how I have yet to read it and then put it back where it came from.

At some point after we moved back south, I saw that Netflix had a series adapted from it. At that moment I became resolute in my need to read it. And then, away it went again. I have no idea why. After all these years of trying to avoid any kind of information and spoilers about this book that everyone and everything said I would absolutely adore, I kept on putting it off.

A while back we took the kids on our bi-weekly trip to the library, I was walking through the upstairs, and right there amongst hundreds of other books was its large black spine looking at me. Once again I was determined to get it read. It is pretty massive. But I decided I have a bunch of other books lined up that I plan on reading and maybe I’ll come back to it afterward. But the white calligraphy stood out from the black and beckoned me to stop procrastinating. So I picked it up, opened it and flipped through a few pages. At which point it made it known to me thatVolume I of this book I’d waited so long to read, was ahead. The notice was accompanied by an illustration of a squat and dour little man with his face in a book and a little note about what I could only assume, was one of the titular gentlemen.

I turned the page and read the first paragraph still standing next to the vacancy on the shelf where it had been sitting, presumably, waiting for me to arrive.

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

The giggles that arose from those two sentences enchanted me and sealed it. That was it. This whole time all I had to do was open the damn thing. So I closed it, wrapped my tiny unmanly hands around it, and carried it with me until everyone was done and we left. I started reading it that night.

Footnote One: While I’m obviously a huge sci-fi fantasy nerd, I’m also an actual student of literature. The study of literature in college is probably one of the biggest influences on the way I approach my writing. I am by extension a literary nerd as well.

Clarkes way of writing was so comfortingly and fascinatingly entertaining that I was completely on board from the jump. The details and they way the prose in which she presents them is one hundred percent of the charm of this book. It’s silly and dark and so deep into the story that it’s telling and I was absolutely enchanted by it. It’s sprawling and wandering in the best ways possible. The footnotes are a particular favorite of mine. Hence the inside joke above.

About a quarter of the way through, I called my mom to tell her about it. She said she’d just finished it and loved it. I took my copy back to the library for someone else to stumble upon and put it on my Kindle, Audible, and ordered a nice first edition from Abebooks and continued on.

There was a large part of me that just enjoyed reading something new that felt like it was old. We’ve grown so accustomed to the straightforwardness of not only our books themselves but of the way in which their told. I’m not saying there’s a problem with it, I’m just saying that this book was the most refreshing thing I’ve read in a very, very long time. We’re rushing all the time. We consume media designed to fill the spaces between the changes of direction in our rushing and during the lulls where we aren’t. There was a time, long ago, when the only escape any one had were books. There were no shows, or movies, or phones, or tablets to pull our attentions away. All people had were books. A great deal of time was spent, reading and engaging and oogling over them. Not just the stories they told but the language by which they were told.

It’s the combination of characters, story, magic, and language all together in a single package that I fell in love with. Everything I love about three or four great books, I found in this one.

I’m not sure how much good I’m doing by not really talking about the two gentlemen themselves but I just want to say that this is not just a story about magic and magicians or how much they deserve each other and the power they have is. Though I guess that’s up the reader in the end anyway. Strange and Norrell are less main characters as much as tentpoles for the rest of the characters. They are the cause for all of the lives of these people to come together. We see more things, understand more things, and feel more things through everyone around them than we do either of them. They are there to do magic, and that magic effects the people around them in ways they can’t, don’t or won’t see.

I will say it’s long, my love of the prose kept me engaged but I can see how it would put some folks off. I would say to them, and to you to please, please stay with it. There are a lot of great characters here, who’s lives are swirling around these two gentlemen like so many ravens caught in a storm. When they all come together, and find what each of them needs, it is a grand spectacle of magic and brilliance.

One of the things I like the most about this, as reader of fantasy, is that the magic is not ours to understand. It is for the magicians. They do magic. They do it a lot. Though the magic is spectacular, it’s written in a way that doesn’t require a huge investment from us as the reader. That is a very nice change of pace. Of greater importance here is the history of the magic, where it disappeared to, why it disappeared, and what will it take to bring it back.

There’s good people in bad places finally finding their places. There’s bad folks getting their comeuppance. There are also two magicians, existing somewhere between those two poles, that spend so much time neglecting the world around them for their magical pursuits, only to find that the magic was a part of that very world. There’s humor and wit. As the book progresses and things move along a great deal of unnerving darkness that really got under my skin.

This was absolutely one of the greatest reading experience of my life. And I just thought I’d geek out about it for a while. Now I’m off to watch the series.

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Just a note for reference: All images, except for the thumb nail, are screenshots from the Kindle version of the book on my device. It’s cover image is take from the BBC series. The thumbnail image is from the BBC series that is on Netflix. It’s the only image I could find that was of the propertionate size for the top fo the site. I would have prefered more images of the actual book. I’m only putting this here in case I’m violationg some kind of… uh… thing.