Book review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Well now. If I’m honest with myself I think I’ve probably owned this book since about December 2004. Over ten years it has sat ignored wondering why I won’t read it, while I’ve lugged it across seven different homes to sit on at least seven different book cases. Maybe only taking it with me out of guilt. Why did I take so long to open it? I’m a commitment-phobe. It’s too damn long.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Now that I’ve finally finished reading this behemoth I can talk about it. While it’s not quite the 1000+ pages that Goodreads seems to think it is (my copy has 782 pages) the lengthy footnotes in smaller print definitely could push it in that region. Although I enjoyed it I had the same problem I always have with longer books; the knowledge that I could have spent that time reading two or three books instead of just one. Two or three different authors, with different ideas, experiences, goals, styles… or even just three books by one author, but at least three different stories. Even if they were part of a trilogy each story would have to stand alone to some extent.

Still, it was a “good read” and, especially towards the end, I found it very compelling. The first couple of hundred pages is much, much slower than the last couple of hundred. The end is very climatic and satisfying and I think there’s no danger of a sequel, the story has very much been told. Knowing that I’m more able to think back to the story and to reflect on how much enjoyed an alternative English history in which magic played a part, especially in the North of England. That’s a lot of fun.


Look! It barely fits in my hand. No wonder it took me so long to read it, if I tried to carry it with me I’d end up with some kind of back injury.

Of course, the story could have been told in far fewer pages. However, I think part of the aim of the book was to build a world, an alternative England in which magic had been real and could be again. An England where magic was a part of the history and the folk law. This world building project would be impossible without some details of that history and folk law and this is largely responsible for the book’s length.

When I was younger and read more books I think I would have been able to enjoy this guilt free. Now that I have less time I still managed to enjoy it but I’m very glad to move onto something else. Plus, I can stop feeling guilty about not reading it now.

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