The story of two magicians who attempt to bring magic back to England in the 1800s, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has received almost unanimous rave reviews from critics since it was published in 2004. There’s no doubt that the author, Susanna Clarke, has accomplished something amazing with her enormous book that creates an alternate world of Faeries, spells and enchantments. It took Clarke over ten years to write this book and, once you read it and find out what all went into the novel, that doesn’t come as a big surprise. However, the real question is, is the book, at almost 800 pages, worth the read?
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is set in a slightly different nineteenth-century England where magic has existed in the past but is now only studied in books by men who call themselves magicians. These magicians are stunned when they discover that there is an actual practical magician in England, one who casts spells instead of just reading about magic. When this magician, Mr. Norrell, proves to the magicians that he is a true practical magician, they all agree to give up their studies and declare him the only magician in England. He enjoys this title for a while, using his magic to help out in moderate tasks for the country until he discovers another practical magician, Jonathan Strange. Although the two initially quarrel, they soon develop a relationship of student and teacher…until their different views on how magic should be used turns them into enemies.
This is not, by anyone’s account, an easy book to read. The prose is dry (though sometimes sparked with wit), the language is archaic and the text is riddled with footnotes. Though some reviewers found the copious footnotes endearing and interesting, I found them distracting from the text and tedious. The characters also did not do much to endear themselves to me. None of the characters, except perhaps Strange’s wife, who gets little page time, make much of an impact or develop a real personality. It doesn’t help that there are so many characters and that some characters are introduced in one chapter only to never appear again. For this book to succeed, Strange and Norrell should, at the least, have luminous personalities that we can either love or hate. Unfortunately, I found both characters to be rather dull and boring, which certainly did nothing to move the plot along.
As far as the plot goes, it’s long and meandering and we’re never really sure what the plot actually is. The feud between Strange and Norrell? Their quest to bring magic back to England? The defeat of the fairy that Norrell conjures in the beginning of the book who wreaks havoc? A dozen are more subplots are woven into the story, some of them complementing each other, some of them distracting. By the time you reach the end of the book, you’re not even sure what plotline needs resolving, so it’s difficult to find closure by the time the last page is read.
Susanna Clarke quite obviously worked incredibly hard to create this huge book, and she should be admired for that. However, with the dry prose, incredible number of footnotes, confusing plot and boring characters, spending hours upon hours to read this 782-page book ultimately feels like a waste of time..