jonathan strange & mr. norrell.

So, one of our semi-regular posts here on Roused to Mediocrity will be centered on books we love. The posts will include books we’ve just read for the first time, or books that we read when we were twelve. The criteria is that they are the sort of book that we simply need to recommend to everyone who will listen.

My assumption is that for my part, fiction will make up the bulk of my recommendations. That is because, as those who know me can attest, for my money there is nothing that beats stories. Stories are sacred and redemptive, they teach us about who we are. When we hold them up to the light we don’t just learn about the characters in the tale, or the author, we learn about ourselves, about what it means to be human. See, there I go rambling about story when this post is about something else entirely!

Thus far, we have yet to come up with a clever moniker for said posts, and we would love the help of you out there in internet land. What should we call these posts?

The first post fits right in with my prediction, but you didn’t really think that I was going to blog about something else after making a claim like the one above, did you? Anyway, on with the post!

Normally, on a day when I finish a book I am quickly on to another. That is never a reflection on the story, or how much I enjoyed said book. Most often I simply can’t wait to sink my teeth into page one of another tale. The most significant exception I can recall was quite recently, after finishing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

After finishing the story’s final page I was so hesitant to leave behind the world of alternate history and characters Clarke had created that I actually spent two days deciding whether or not I would start a new book or simply relive the delightful pages with Strange and Norrell again.

Books simply don’t get better than this. It was wonderfully British, subtle and nuanced, consistently hilarious, in short, it was utterly brilliant. Filled with beauty and wonder, darkness and tragedy, and for all its false history it is filled with people who have the depth, faults and authentic frailty of each of us. I quite honestly wished that when I had finished the 850 pages that there were 1000 more at least.

Clarke’s tone of narration was perfect for making the idea utterly believable that, during the Napoleonic War, London saw the reintroduction of magic into everyday life. The alternate world of the story was just like our own, aside from the fact that everyone was well aware of the existence of magic and faeries (and as a side note, faeries in this story are not miniature girls with wings, they are tall, attractive, wildly dangerous and unpredictable creatures of both genders, for whom magic comes as easily as breathing). Clarke tells a tale which feels at every moment appropriately outlandish while at the same time entirely plausible and commonplace.

I loved all the characters. Each had a depth that wasn’t exaggerated, but felt quiet and real. When someone tells us a story in real life, they rarely go out of their way to point out the emotional complexity of the story’s subjects, that is simply present for those who desire to read between the lines. Such is the case for characters like Jonathan and Arabella Strange, Gilbert Norrell, Childermass, Stephen Black, Lord Wellington, the gentleman with thistle-down hair, and even the absent yet always central character of John Uskglass.

Each character wooed my affection, not in spite of their foibles and weaknesses, but because of them. It was in large part their weakness that made them feel so authentic. They held grudges to the point of absurdity, the two main protagonists were fueled by arrogance and fear as often (or more often) as courage and clarity. They were all terrible at communicating, to their own peril. However, it is never in the absurd Lost sort of bad communication that works as a shorthand (read: lazy) way of keeping the plot a mystery (Kate: Sayeed, what’s wrong?!? Sayeed: We are all going to die if you don’t stand on your head whistle the theme song to Hawaii 5-0. [Characters walk off into the jungle, and, end scene] Viewer: Ah, I see, that is the end of the conversation. Not, “Why, Sayeed?” or “What is going to kill us?” or “Why would that help?” or “Take 5 minutes and tell me the short version of what’s going on.” We’ll just leave it at, OK, that vague, mysterious and nonsensical answer works for me, away we go.)

In Clarke’s book the poor communication happened in the way that we are all often terrible at communicating in real life, when a simple uncomfortable conversation might clear everything up but we avoid the tension and vulnerability, where we are unwilling to face the necessary relinquishing of our pride. It is a world where we let misunderstanding hang in the air because we cannot bring ourselves to make the sacrifices necessary for a needed conversation to take place.

Since reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell I’ve also loved the hell out of Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which is a book of short stories, each taking place in the same alternate history as the novel.

I hope it isn’t long before Clarke unleashes her slightly dark and entirely brilliant imagination on the world with a new book.

4 Responses to “ jonathan strange & mr. norrell. ”

  1. towardeverywind


  2. I shall read this soon, very soon.

  3. […] project described above all year. First was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which I wrote about here. Then there was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Road, and The Book Thief, which […]