Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell


It was an epic struggle, a battle that required dedication and willpower.  I’m not talking about the book, but the journey to finishing it.  I started reading it some years ago, but got to around the mid-point and decided to go read some other things.  I picked it up again at least a couple of years later and decided I was going to finish it.  Relief was the overwhelming emotion on completion.

The book has garnered plenty of literary praise, with good reason.  It’s been compared to Austen and Dickens (at least) and I could certainly see similarities, with the story sharing not only Dickens’ dark and grimy feel, but the large landscape and backstory about the characters, all told as they go about their daily lives.

Therein lies the rub.  The version I read was over 1,000 pages, and while it started well, and ended with a degree of urgency (and rather quickly) it spends a huge amount of time just meandering through the landscape with no real development.  The characters simply float along, going about their lives, but with no real purpose, something we’re not used to in modern stories; there’s no sense of purpose.

Added to this is a distance from the characters.  They rarely seemed to engage me (at least until the end) and the fates that befall many of them, or they are made to endure, left me frustrated.  Whether that distance is designed to enhance the Victorian feel of the novel I’m not sure, but no character really garners your empathy.

Having said all that, the book is filled with wonderful ideas, a hugely detailed world, magic that seems grounded far more in realism than most, and characters who are rarely walking stereotypes.  In spite of the copious footnotes that have been crammed in, you still feel the author has much more material covering the entire history of English magic that didn’t make it (not for want to trying).

I can see why it receives such praise, but the lack of any real plot motivation, any end goal for much of the novel, left me wondering why the book couldn’t have been edited down to half the length.  It would have served to speed up the story and provide some momentum, instead it spends much of the middle like a voyage in the doldrums; lots of observation, no real movement.

If you have the time to climb into a world it’s worth a look, if you prefer something with a driving force, a page turner, this is not for you.

Browse books related by genre:
This was a copy of the book

Reviewed: 15th October 2012