Thursday, January 01, 2009

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

(Book Review)

Because English books can be hard to come by out here in Japan, there's a lot of book trading among the ex-pat community. I was at a British friend's house in Fukuoka, and was browsing through her book shelf, when I saw this.

"Hmm, this looks kind of interesting," I said.
"Is this any good?"

"You know, to be honest, I never finished it," she said. "And I don't think I will. It just moves way too slowly and, well, life's too short. But you can take it and give it a try if you want."

And so I did. And it took me a few months, but I managed to read my way all the way to the end of this 1006 page book.

The basic premise of the book sounds pretty interesting. It's one of these alternate history books, which takes familiar history (in this case the Napoleonic Wars) and retells it using elements of magic and fantasy. Of particular interest to history geeks like myself is the number of real life historical figures who are woven into this story such as the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, King George, and many others.

However, the reader should be warned that the description on the back cover exaggerates somewhat. The back cover talks about a "dangerous battle" between the rival magicians Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell which overwhelms both Britain and France.
This is, in typical marketing fashion, ravelling and dazzling up the plot a bit. In reality, the actual publishing blurb should probably read, "a story about a strained relationship between two gentleman British magicians that never really actually reaches the point of an actual battle." But I guess that probably wouldn't sell as many books.

This book is highly critically acclaimed but, as my British friend pointed out, it does move agonizingly slowly. If you go to the customer reviews on the Amazon page, you can see a debate going on between those who thought this book was a work of genius, and those who thought it so tedious they couldn't even finish it. And even the reviews praising this book are written in a somewhat defensive way, warning that it this book is not for everyone.

According to wikipedia, the style of the book is intentionally designed to reflect Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. I've never read any Jane Austen, but I can say the writing style is somewhat reminiscent of Dickens. Particularly the part where Dickens got paid by the word and always crammed a lot of filler into his books.

The actual plot of the book is a lot shorter than 1006 pages. It could probably be trimmed down to say, 300 pages. What makes up for the extra 700 pages is a lot of side-plots, back stories of minor characters, long descriptions, and back ground information about the fictional history of English magic.

To be fair, most of this is designed to create an atmosphere and get the reader absorbed in the book. And I must admit this worked on me to an extent. As I continued reading, I did get more and more caught up in the world Susanna Clarke had created, and I did want to see what would happen to the all the various wheels she was spinning.

It wasn't what I would call a real page turner, but I stuck with it and didn't let myself quit, and eventually I found myself absorbed.

But then the ending was a pretty big let down. After 1006 pages, I was kind of hoping for a more dramatic ending. The book never really has much of a climax. It just kind of peters out.

I wouldn't say I was sorry I read this book, but I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it to anyone else either.

Link of the Day
Countdown: Candice Gingrich on Prop 8


Whisky Prajer said...

If the first 100 pages don't pull me in, I'm gone. And these first 100 pages seemed to do their utmost to send me off. The Dickens/Austen comparison is scurrilous: hell, why didn't she throw in Shakespeare, and make it the perfect British trifecta? Were I more prone to vituperative Amazon reviewing, I would be among the "one-star" readers.

But I know what happens when you're in a non-English-speaking country. I read Caleb Carr's The Alienist right to its tedious finish -- but only because I was in Germany and had brought too few books with me. Some lessons are learned the hard way.

Joel said...

Although the reading choices are limited over here, I'd be lying if I said this was the only book I had available to me. But I stuck with this book because I thought maybe it would pick up if I got more into it. And by the time I realized it wasn't going to pick up, I was far enough along I thought I might as well finished it off.

It was not the most exciting book I ever read, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it a complete waste of time either. Still, I couldn't really recommend it to anyone