Reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, at last

by Sunita

clarkeWe have a print copy of Susanna Clarke’s lauded novel on our bookshelves. It’s been there for a decade. TheHusband read it soon after it came out, but I tried and failed at least a couple of times (probably more), mostly recently a year ago. My failure nagged at me; I wanted to read, enjoy, and finish it. It’s set in Regency England and is chock-full of all those characters and settings I love in Austen and Heyer. I’ve read Maria Edgeworth and Thomas Love Peacock! I’ve read detailed histories of Wellington and the Spanish Campaign. Why was this book such a slog for me?

An immediate, obvious reason is the faeries. I’m fine with magic, but I hate faeries. I know they’re important to British literary and historical culture, but I don’t understand or like them and I tend to run away from books where they play a major role.

However, this time with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell seems to be the charm. Keishon had been talking about reading it and then took the plunge, and we converged on a readalong, just to help each other keep going. It’s been slow; I’ve been reading it for at least a month, but I’m making progress, and more importantly, I’m actually enjoying it this time. It’s still awfully twee in places, but I appreciate the less tweet parts more than I did in the past.

But. Nevertheless. I still don’t entirely get this book. I’m now more than halfway through (nearly 500 pages into an edition that clocks in at 836 pages). This afternoon I asked TheHusband if there were underlying themes and meanings in the novel that I was just missing. I think my exact words were, “Is it about anything? Besides magic and the storyline, I mean? Is the whole magic thing a metaphor for something?”

He thought for a minute and said, “No, I don’t think so. Not that I remember. I think the story is just the story.” I believed him (he reads a lot and quite widely), but I remained dissatisfied. So I got online and started reading reviews. There are, of course, a ton of rave reviews. Although, I did not realize this book had been described as an adult Harry Potter. Hey, I’m an adult and I read Harry Potter. Harry Potter is the adult Harry Potter. But anyway.

The reviews that resonated with me were the ones in the New York Times and the Guardian. Gregory Macguire, in the NYT, is mostly complimentary, but he finds the characters lacking in depth and notes that “In this fantasy, the master that magic serves is reverence for writing.” Michael Faber is more critical in his Guardian review:

Yes, the Austen imitation is deftly maintained and the other obvious influences – Ursula le Guin, Mervyn Peake, Dickens, Chesterton – are well-synthesised. But overall this large, loquacious book has nothing much to say, the plot creaks frightfully in many places and the pace dawdles.

And that’s my problem. I’ve seen this novel described as “literary fantasy,” and without getting too deeply what comprises genre v. literary fiction, I find “literary” to be an odd appellation. Unless by the word you mean erudition, in which case any number of genre books meet that definition. Romance, mystery, and SFF authors can be terrifyingly well read, educated, and insightful, and those qualities come through in their books. But I do expect literary fiction, whether genre-friendly or not, to operate on more than one level, and to do so in a subtle, complex way. There are plenty of genre novels that hit you over the head with their messages (and plenty of “litfic” novels that do too), but they generally aren’t successful in a literary sense.

But Clarke’s book has been so widely praised (the best English fantasy of the 20th century!) that I expected more than I’m getting. Don’t get me wrong. I’m having a fun ride, and I will definitely read to the end. Now that the gauntlet has been thrown down about the true role of the Raven King in English magic, now that the conflicts between Strange and Norrell have been made manifest, things are getting really interesting on the magic and character fronts.

It’s a highly enjoyable and very skillfully executed fantasy novel. I wish I hadn’t been under the impression for so many years that it was more than that. That’s quite enough, really, to make it worth the time and energy.