The Courtly Charms of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

As soon as Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell became available in local bookstores, I immediately shifted to active search mode. Its hefty price and sheer weight (which can be hard on your wrist) gave me some pause at first, but after reading several glowing reviews I threw caution to the wind and bought a hardbound copy.

So was it worth the hassle? You bet. In spades.

I was barely halfway into the first chapter when I realized that I was truly ensnared with no hope of turning back. I raced through that 782-page book like a hound on a scent mission. After finishing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 1 and 1/2 days (I still had to report for work), I went through it again. This time, I savored every page and sniffed every meandering twist and turn of the fantasy tale — yes, even the footnotes.

I’d been trying to convince a lot of people since then to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but except for a couple of sci-fi/fantasy geeks it didn’t really catch on among my friends and colleagues. Oddly enough, only a few people seemed to appreciate its charms. I think the book’s sheer length and weight, as well as Susanna Clarke’s writing style (which mirrors the style and conventions adopted by many authors of that era — particularly Jane Austen) must have put them off.

This, of course, baffled me. After I had raved about it for weeks, a friend finally asked me why I liked it so much. For some reason, that question floored me for a few seconds. I mean, how do you explain why you like something without sounding like an obsessive nutcase? I finally replied, “Just read it.”

I could have told him several things: Susanna Clarke’s storytelling gifts, the elegant way she paints a scene (which would normally take lesser authors many paragraphs to convey and many years to perfect), and her beguiling way of convincing you that such things are actually possible.

The thing about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is that Ms. Clarke unfolds her tale with a deceptively reasonable and gently (and at other times, sly) teasing tone, it makes you want to believe these remarkable events with frightening ease. It’s like being invited into a parlor and ushered into a comfortable chair facing a nice, warm fireplace; before long, you just want to settle in and not ever want to leave. The story feels alien and comfortingly familiar at the same time.

I suppose that my fondness for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell can be partly traced to my lingering affection for Jane Austen’s books (well, some of them at least) and the fact that I like fantasy/sci-fi books in general. I have also devoured Georgette Heyer’s books, which are an excellent source of social vignettes and humor during the Regency period. In addition, Ms. Clarke managed to infuse her tale with some of the period’s famous historical figures, which is always an excellent way of grounding a story (despite the fact that it’s a revisionist tale).

I wish there were more books like this. Which reminds me, Susanna Clarke’s latest book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a collection of short stories relating to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s story line, is also out. (Naturally, I have a copy of that, too.)