I’ve just finished reading Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - after five years – and, to put it mildly, it was a less than pleasurable experience (as the length of time it took me to get through it perhaps gives away). What made this such a disappointing experience in particular was the fact that I came to the book with such high hopes. For those who don’t know, Strange & Norrell is an alternative history novel set in 19th century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The fantasy twist is that it is based on the premise that magic once existed in England and has returned in the form of the two eponymous wizards. Normally this kind of thing appeals to me greatly. The novel’s critical and commercial success did nothing to rein in my sky-high expectations: it reached number three on the New York Times best-seller list, was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. No less a luminary than Neil Gaiman described Clarke’s book as ”unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years”. The novel’s impact was compared instantly to that of Lord of the Rings and its writer’s talent to that of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. On second thoughts, perhaps this stream of hyperbole should have hinted that the whole thing sounded too good to be true. So where did it all go so horribly wrong?
There was the potential for this book to have been interesting and original with its themes of magical conflict – between the world of fairies and humans, between human armies using magical weapons, and between its two main wizardly protagonists. I was thinking that it would be Harry Potter for grown-ups, at worst; the fantasy equivalent of War and Peace or Great Expectations, at best. I’m sure that Clarke worked hard on this, after all the book is almost 900 pages long, but the trouble is that, for me, it fails on almost every level. There is the lack of a plot thread, the absence of a purpose to the main conflict, the dearth of interesting characters, the non-existence of a true antagonist, and so on and so on. Clarke consciously appears to try to pastiche the great literary talents of the 18th and 19th century in her work, but I’m afraid that she just isn’t up to it. The book fails as a faux classic because the author thinks that wordiness, the occasional archaic spelling and cameo appearances by historical characters are what it takes to write like an 18th or 19th century author. But the unfortunate thing for Clarke is that authors like Dickens, Austen, Trollope and the Brontes filled their thick wordy books with enough memorable characters to populate a village, or two, while the characters in Strange & Norrell are emotionless, motivation-less and one-dimensional. Even now I couldn’t really point you to any features that distinguished Jonathan Strange from Mr Norrell.
But my biggest gripe (and this will not surprise regular readers of this blog at all) is that this is yet another example of a major fantasy novel with appalling, borderline non-existent editing. That Strange & Norrell bored me to tears, with the slowest pace I’ve come across in some time, was bad enough. The fact that, hiding somewhere in amongst the never-ending pages of this novel, was a genuine potential classic, makes matters even worse. As I mentioned earlier, I had great hopes for this book at the outset but the trouble was that, once I got into it, the story started to drown in a self-indulgent flood of words. Someone should, at a very early stage, have been sensible enough to take a firm hand and viciously edit the book down into the something vaguely readable. No one did, however, and what we have instead is a book that I kept on reading in the vain hope that something would happen to justify all the hype. I did manage to finish Strange & Norrell but it was a close run thing in the end. The book is also filled with ever-lengthening, completely unnecessary footnotes, which became so irritating that I simply stopped reading them in the end. I very much doubt that I missed anything in doing so – little enough was going on in the novel to justify immersing myself any further in Clarke’s world.
No, it’s safe to say that I really didn’t like Strange & Norrell. Having said that, I’m well aware that I’m in something of a minority. Don’t believe me? Check out amazon and read all those five-star reviews. Then there’s the critical acclaim and all those awards that I mentioned above (which, need I mention it, far exceed the opprobrium that Lord of the Rings received on its release all those years ago – what kind of a world are we living in?!). I talk to people all the time who are massive Strange & Norrell fans – they’re the ones who convinced me to read the book in the first place, damn them! I suppose that this is just an example of one of those ‘marmite’ books, which some people love and others just love to hate. I won’t be recommending reading Strange & Norrell to anyone else anytime soon – unless of course Clarke takes her cue from those classic authors that she likes to imitate so much and releases an ‘abridged’ version of her novel. Oh, and I do have to admit that it might make a good TV series at some point (there, I said something nice after all!).