Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Most book addicts know about the sinking feeling that sets in around the time one realises that an eagerly anticipated book is going to turn out to be a disappointment. I’m feeling that way now, and I hope my gut instinct is wrong. Am around 100 pages into one of the most talked-about books of the summer, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which was long-listed for the Booker Prize this year, and briefly talked about as a dark horse for the actual award. It missed out on the shortlist announced last week, but is still much-discussed in bibliotic circles, with some reviewers extolling it as "Jane Austen meets J R R Tolkien/Harry Potter", and a landmark of the fantasy genre.

This is a mammoth, 800-page historical fantasy set in the Britain of the early 19th century where two men of contrasting personalities work together to try and revive the practice of magic, long thought to be lost. Much of their work is done for the British government in the war against the French armies led by Napoleon (this is alternative history alright; Lord Nelson is dead and the Emperor Bonaparte plunders on undeterred).

Those are the rudiments of the plot. My opinion so far: it’s just not a very interesting read, and I find myself (very reluctantly) agreeing with some reviewers on that it’s difficult to care about the characters. There are a few clever lines and intriguingly "realistic" descriptions of magical spells, and Clarke’s detailed (and wholly fictitious) footnotes are often amusing. But somehow I just haven’t been drawn into the book’s alternate universe. I keep turning pages in hope but that spark between reader and book refuses to light.

Incidentally, on the Amazon website, there were scornful ripostes by defenders of the book, to the effect that those who criticised it were only capable of appreciating the fast-paced thrills of Harry Potter. But that’s clearly nonsense. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Austen, Dickens and other writers with whom the structure of Clarke’s novel has been compared. But so far she simply hasn’t come close to achieving their intensity, passion or character delineation -- and these are facets of writing that have nothing to do with how fast- or slow-paced the story may be.

But of course, it’s foolish to condemn a book on the grounds that it doesn’t live up to Austen’s or Dickens’ standards. And on a more promising note, the last chapter I read (titled "Brest") was almost incongruously hypnotic. It described the creation, by the magician Mr Norrell, of an entire British fleet of "ships made of rain" to daunt the French navy. I thought it was a beguiling piece of writing in more than one sense, and so perhaps there’s hope yet for the book. A couple of reviews I’ve glanced at suggest that it gets better as it goes along. Let’s see.


  1. Its been a while since you posted your September 2004 blog. But I hope you have finished Jonathan Strange by now and enjoyed it as much as I did.

    If you abandoned it after 100 pages then I suggest you pick it up again.

    I am an Indian also and it could be that you do not know the history of England during the 1800's. The book is more enjoyable if you know of England's campaigns in Spain and Waterloo.

  2. Hi,
    I had finished the book just a week or so later, and loved it (in fact, I think I posted about it subsequently). Reviewed it for a magazine too.