Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a long book that takes its time. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has slower character development – except for books that don’t have any character development at all.
In the first half especially, this massive tome reads more like a collection of anecdotes, short stories and miniatures about magic, folklore and society, which are nearly all interesting, well-crafted, oddly poetic and at times charmingly witty.
The actual story only takes off after about 400 pages (in my pocket edition of 1000 pages). It took me quite some time to reach that mark. I considered giving up around page 300, since not that much was happening, but kept on reading because Clarke’s language and descriptions have an eerie yet funny character that retained a sense of promise about the story itself. 100 pages later, I was fully gripped.
The inventive use of footnotes and the freshness of the enthusiastic narrative voice add to the pleasure this novel provides. The entire book, which has been rightly dubbed a comedy of manners too, has a reflective, ironical vibe, and as such it is very, very English – for lack of a better word.
Lots has been written about this acclaimed book, and I don’t have much to add. Let me suffice with saying that it is utterly original, and a genuine feast of the imagination.
This comes with the highest possible recommendation – if you are willing to invest the time.
UPDATE: Here’s a link to my review of the lesser known The Ladies Of Grace Adieu, Clarke’s 2006 collection of short stories, most of which are set in the same faerie England. And here to a bit of a philosophical analysis of Piranesi, her 2020 triumph.
There’s also a brilliant, in-depth examination of Strange & Norrell on the Strange Horizons’ site – really stunning scholarschip by Elizabeth Hoiem. Very much worth your time if you’re familiar with the novel.
originally written on the 13th of September, 2015