Rereadings: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

April 2, 2010 at 12:00 am 15 comments


When Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell first came out, I noticed it right away. With its black cover featuring a stark white raven silhouette, it was hard to ignore on a table of new releases filled with flashy, colorful covers. Strange was an exercise in graphic design restraint and I was immediately drawn to it. I picked it up, read the inside jacket text, yawned at the mention of “magicians,” flipped idly through the pages, closed it, looked at the cover again somewhat longingly, and put it back on the new release table. And I walked away.

It is entirely possible that in the history of new release tables and people looking at books on them, no one will ever regret walking away from that table more than I do. And, I am deeply sorry to admit, I did it again. Four times. Four times over the course of three years I saw it, picked it up, leafed through it, and did not buy it. Once I even bought it for my then-boyfriend’s brother without reading it myself. Apparently it was good enough to give but not good enough to read. And in so doing (or not doing) for three years, I missed out on what would end up being one of my all-time favorite books.

When I started thinking about rereading books, Strange immediately presented itself. After my three-year inexplicable resistance to the book and on my fifth time noticing it and picking it up (by this time on the discount table rather than the new release table), I got fed up with my own lengthy dithering and bought it immediately. I took it home and read it with equal alacrity. And I adored it. I raced through it over the course of one J-term in college and then devoured The Ladies of Grace Adieu when I finished. I couldn’t get enough. But I have not read it since. Those who have had the pleasure of reading Strange will undoubtedly know why: it is huge. It weighs almost three pounds and is 800 pages long. I am sorry to say that no matter how excellent a book, length often prevents me from rereading it. Result: Strange fell by the wayside for another three years.

So on the sixth anniversary of the book first catching my eye, I picked it up again. This was the time. I was going to reread Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell come hell or high water. And so I really tried. I’ve been plugging away at it for most of March with little to show for my efforts. As of today, I am about half-way through. As much as I love it, you have to admit Strange‘s three pounds is not exactly conducive to taking on the subway or to the beach or really anywhere except my own living room. And so I did not finish this rereading quite in time to write about the whole experience, but I did get enough of the way through to be thoroughly re-enchanted by Susanna Clarke’s masterwork.

Strange is, even more than I remember it being, remarkably witty, funny, and filled equally with pleasing historic details and wholly invented “history of English magic” asides and/or footnotes. I actually found myself stifling sniggers on the few occasions I did lug it on the subway and grinning widely as I read it on my roof. I remembered Strange as an interesting historical novel with dashes of invented history and nonfictional flourishes, but I had forgotten that it was genuinely funny, too.

Along with the humor, I also fully realized how fond I was many of the supporting characters in the novel. I found that I truly loved Arabella (Strange’s long-suffering wife), was quite fond of Mr. Segundus (Strange’s biographer), and felt deeply for Stephen Black (a servant). The first time around, I was so excited by the book that I raced through it and hardly stopped to take note of how well-written it was and how fully-formed every part of the book is. On rereading it, I truly appreciated how carefully Clarke crafted each character, even the relatively minor ones, and made them into fully-formed people.

I think rereading Strange slowly and even not finishing it quite yet really improved the book, if that is possible. My first reading was a passionate and excitable sprint, but my rereading turned out to be something akin to a delightful weekend stroll through an old grove you once loved. The best part is realizing you still do.

–Corey

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Personal Days by Ed Park Weekly Geeks: Checking Out Libraries

15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  April 2, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Arabella really comes into her own on the second reading, I think! I loved rereading this book, so I’m glad you had a similar experience with it. I’ve only read it twice all the way through, and yet I consider it one of my favorite books as well — you’re right, rereading this book is a major event, one that requires some commitment and perhaps a long car ride or two.

    Reply
    • 2. Corey  |  April 2, 2010 at 12:24 pm

      Definitely. I liked her the first time around, but I just adored her this time! The whole book was a big Arabella hug.

      It’s funny, I’m pretty sure The Historian is equally hefty, but it is such a swifter read. I guess Strange is to be savored while The Historian can always be enjoyed at a clip. It’s just good no matter the pace!

      Reply
  • 3. Natalie  |  April 2, 2010 at 11:57 am

    I have had this book on my list for a while and am between books at the moment… perhaps it’s finally time to pick it up!

    Reply
    • 4. Corey  |  April 2, 2010 at 12:25 pm

      How funny! I guess this book is just inclined towards abandonment and/or neglect. You should definitely give it a go if you have the time. It’s so well-done.

      Reply
  • 5. anothercookiecrumbles  |  April 2, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks for the review. I have this book at home, and might get it back with me, when I visit later this month.

    Reply
    • 6. Corey  |  April 2, 2010 at 6:34 pm

      You definitely should! If you have a spare week or so, you can race right through it and it is so worth it. :)

      Reply
  • 7. Eva  |  April 3, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    I read this book and loved it a few years ago, and I’m planning on rereading it this year. So of course your post delighted me! :)

    Reply
    • 8. Corey  |  April 5, 2010 at 5:26 am

      How timely! Improbably, the book does get better the second time around, so I definitely recommend a reread. Good luck!

      Reply
  • 9. Fredegonde  |  April 5, 2010 at 10:24 am

    So funny! I loved Strange & Norrell too. However, even though I usually love to re-read books, I never wanted to re-read this one precisely because of the weight. The Ladies of Grace Adieu was such a relief because it was more of the same, sort of, but so much easier to (literally) handle.

    Reply
    • 10. Corey  |  April 5, 2010 at 11:06 am

      Ha, absolutely! I guess I should have tried to reread Ladies instead. I think this rereading of Strange will probably satisfy for the next decade or so. Far too hefty for regular rereads!

      Reply
  • 11. Weekly Geeks: P.A.B.D « Literary Transgressions  |  May 19, 2010 at 12:12 am

    […] Kostova, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna […]

    Reply
  • […] I read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I didn’t know magic could be for grown-ups. I had spent years hiding my fantasy books, […]

    Reply
  • […] with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It is a creative and richly furnished alternate reality of our world, complete with its own […]

    Reply
  • […] I assumed that, in the style of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Instance was Pears’ first book. It seemed impossible that such a work could come from […]

    Reply
  • […] at the very end of the list, there was a little trio of recommended books clustered together: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Night Circus, and The Rook. Now, the first two are two of my all-time favorite books. Ever. […]

    Reply

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