Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m pleased to say that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of those cases where, upon re-reading this book. I got to change my star rating to one higher than the initial rating — in this case, going from around a 4/5* to a 4.75/5*.

This is due in large part to the 2015 miniseries adaptation put on by the BBC, starring Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as Strange and Norrell respectively. I cannot praise this seven-hour adaptation enough — you can see some of my ramblings on it here — and I will freely lay my cards out on the table to admit that I enjoyed the miniseries more than I did my first reading of the novel. But I will also attribute to my reasons for going back to the novel and noticing more of its charms this second go-round to the miniseries as well.

The novel is written in a pastiche of the 18/19th century novel, and so reads a bit like Dickens in that feats of magic or moments of tragedy are often described in an almost nonchalant, casual way. In terms of keeping with a consistent narrative style, this is right on the money, but I can’t deny that I oftentimes found it impeded my ability to immerse myself within the world. The style impeded my ability to engage and connect with the emotional epicentres of the characters, especially Jonathan Strange, who arguably undergoes some of the most emotional trauma of the entire novel. In the show, Bertie Carvel’s dynamic performance completely sold me on the journey of Strange in ways that the book did not, and I look at this pastiche-style — one of the things which makes this novel so unique — as the cause.

And yet, this second time, I did not have the same issue as the first read — well, not as much, as the very least. Sure, there were moments where I did not always engage and, so, fell back on what the miniseries elicited from me emotionally, but I truly did find it easier to slip into the pastiche style this time around, as if a hole had been blown through the metaphorical wall that got in my way the first time.

If there’s anything to possibly complain about on a narrative level, it is the openness of the novel’s conclusion. (view spoiler) There is no closure to that tragedy — no satisfactory, closure, that is, as the ending is truly bittersweet by virtue of its openness. Outside of (view spoiler), the ending is actually surprisingly hopeful, with (view spoiler) That’s my head!canon at least, if only so that my heart stops breaking for (view spoiler)

I’d be remiss not to mention Mr. Norrell in all of this. As you have probably gleaned from this review, I am a Strangite, meaning I fall more in line with Jonathan Strange’s way of thinking as it pertains to magic. I do also, admittedly, sympathise with his character mores o than Norrell’s, and this is because Clarke brilliantly takes a note out of Shakespeare, notedly Julius Caesar, and presents two opposite protagonists representing pathos and logospathos being appeal to the emotions of the audience, and elicits feelings that already reside in them (Strange); logos being logical, reasoned discourse that does not consider emotions (Norrell). Jonathan Strange is very clearly that Marc Antony-like pathos, easily imagined crying “havoc” to “let slip the dogs of war,” whereas Norrell is very much the logos. He constantly rationalises to the point of seeming callousness and lack of feeling or sympathy for others. But my greatest gripe with Norrell is his elitist, conservative attitude wards magic. While I can understand some of his intentions in wishing magic to be respectable, hoarding all the books of magic so that others may not learn and forbidding others to even call themselves magicians so that they may not study or even attempt to practice…it’s awful and does not sit well with me at all. So while Strange is certainly reckless in much of his impetuousness, I still prefer his attitude to Norrell’s.

Long story short: this book might take some getting used to stylistically, but it is rewarding to those who manage it. Then go block out seven hours for the miniseries because it’s bloodydamn brilliant.

View all my reviews

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