Book Report

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I saw an extremely positive review in Vox of Susanna Clarke’s new novel (Piranesi) which made me want to read it, but I though I’d check out her original novel — for free, from the library — first.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a honker of a book, weighing in at 782 pages, and tells the tale, set in an alternate-history version of early 1800’s England, of the two men who revived the practice of English magic. It’s written, perhaps somewhat ironically, in the style of the novels from that era — think Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters — which was fun and clever for the first half of the book, but that whole stilted “British landed gentry politeness” thing wears me down after a while (I sometimes joke that the one improvement Pride and Prejudice really needed was a guillotine), and it makes the story, which actually has a very active plot, seem like nothing ever happens.

So the book rolled along just fine until the midpoint and then became a chore, but then it became interesting and readable again in the last hundred pages or so. I suspect that this is a result of my COVID anxiety: several longish books I read recently had the same effect on me — I liked them at first, they became tiresome as my attention span struggled, and then I enjoyed them again by the end. Like those other books, I am actually glad I read this one to the end.

Since Piranesi is only about 200 pages, I’ll be adding it to my list.