Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Discussion in 'Fantasy / Horror' started by AuntiePam, Sep 21, 2004.

  1. AuntiePam

    AuntiePam Cranky old broad

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    This new release is getting a lot of hype and 99% positive reviews at Amazon and elsewhere.

    I got about 200 pages in and stopped reading. I recognize that Susanna Clarke has done a good job evoking the time period and describing the manners and culture of the time. The writing is undeniably witty and smart, but the book is too long and it feels self-indulgent, like Clarke couldn't bear to cut any pretty phrases.

    I love build-up and character development, and I have no problem with slow starts, but I need to feel that there's a purpose, a reason to keep reading, to become involved.

    I didn't get that with this book. There was no tension. By tension, I don't mean danger and menace (although that wouldn't hurt), but a sense of purpose -- that we'll meet people who will be affected by events (events big or small, doesn't have to be wars and betrayals and violence).

    Clarke has the right words and the right style, but there's nothing there.

    The book is going to be controversial. People (like me) who don't appreciate it are being told that "it's not the fantasy you're used to", that if a book doesn't have Hobbits and dragons, we "don't get it."

    Of the two main characters, Mr. Norrell is pedantic, small-minded, and distant. Strange is shallow and clueless. The secondary characters have interesting names but no personality.

    Maybe the book just needs editing. The characters talk way too much (they all love to hear themselves talk), and they say everything -- you don't wonder about their motives or possible hidden meanings.

    I guess it's supposed to be that way -- 19th century upper class English folks were probably pretty self-absorbed and pompous -- but it makes for a boring read when all the characters are like that.

    Has anyone else read it?
     
  2. Larry

    Larry Vaguely Borgesian

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    I read it and enjoyed it greatly. Maybe I have a much greater patience for Clarke's style of writing, seeing as I'm very familiar with 19th century English literature. I found Clarke's writing to be evocative of Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen in particular, with characters introduced in and out like Charles Dickens. But be careful and not presume that she copies those authors. She doesn't, and there's certainly a growing tension between Norrell and Strange.

    If you quit only after Section one, then you've missed by far the best scenes of the novel. There is a slow-building tension throughout the book, but it might take you reading through Section two to see how that tension has been building since Section one's beginning.

    As for the perceived excessiveness in talking - sometimes, that can be a blind for a greater purpose. Let's just say I was pleasantly surprised by how well Clarke hid a momentous plot development from me until it was time for it to be revealed. In hindsight, there were foreshadowings of the Raven King reappearing, but the manner and fashion are quite surprising, with consequences that leaves many readers wanting more.

    One thing I didn't really understand about the reviews (beyond feeling a need to make a comparison that more readers might get and aptness be damned) is that of comparing the story to the Harry Potter novels. I've read all those and there really isn't much in common there other than magic and the English "real world" intersecting. Clarke's novel, I believe, is more about exploration of the human comedy within a framework that just happens to utilize fantastic elements.

    In terms of editing, I'm uncertain about how much could be cut from the story to make it more effective. As bloated as Section one might seem, I do believe that it is important for the overall storyline that Clarke establishes the mood, local color, and place. Now in terms of plotting, she readily admits that she had to focus on that because she was more naturally inclined to do character pieces. At least that's what she remarked in response to a reader question at the book signing I attended last Friday night.

    But it really comes down to a matter of taste, I guess, or maybe preference would be a more precise word. I think the novel is more likely to appeal to those who like leisurely reads, have a fondness for the authors I mentioned above (and add G.K. Chesterton and George Eliot to that mix), and who prefer a slower build to a denouement. For those that found Dickens and company to be dreadful bores, I doubt this novel will be much better for their literary appetites.
     
  3. AuntiePam

    AuntiePam Cranky old broad

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    So it gets better?

    Sigh. I might have to give it another go.

    I haven't read Austen, Dickens, or Trollope. I do like the naturalists, Zola, Balzac, and Howells, and more recently, I've enjoyed the hell out of Iain Pears. There's a substance and richness to those authors that I didn't find with Clarke.

    Thanks for the input. You've said some things that give me hope.
     
  4. Larry

    Larry Vaguely Borgesian

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    It gets better, but if it's something about the style that annoys you, it might still be that way further in. Clarke stays fairly consistent. However, there is a really cool series of events when Strange happens to meet a very famous Englishman who is really an Irishman during a very key campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. At the reading, Clarke told us that as she was researching the period, there was this account where said famous Irish-Englishman was running out of aide-de-camps and ended up drafting a button merchant. She thought this was so odd that she felt compelled to have this guy make an appearance in the story.

    I love the Naturalists as well, but they are quite a bit different in style than the comedy of manners-type writing that is characteristic of Austen or of the situational irony of Dickens or Trollope. It's almost as if you would like french vanilla rather than chocolate ice cream - you recognize the merits, but find yourself just wanting something else. Fair enough assessment for your first reaction to the story?
     
  5. AuntiePam

    AuntiePam Cranky old broad

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    That's it, exactly. :)
     
  6. Susan Boulton

    Susan Boulton Edited for submission

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    Just thought folks would like to hear a comments by some of the "Booker" judges last night. The book was on the long list.

    One they felt it could be cut by 200 pages and the story got lost two thirds in...

    The other was very "anti" the book... saying he had no objection to it being on the long list but as to the short list he would never consider it... rather an interesting 5 minutes on channel four....
     
  7. AuntiePam

    AuntiePam Cranky old broad

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    Thanks, Holbrook.

    Somebody on TV was discussing books? That's amazing. The only time I see book talk on TV is when authors visit the talk shows to pimp their latest book.

    I guess I'm not surprised that the book would be considered for a prize. It's original enough, in subject matter anyway.
     
  8. Eldanuumea

    Eldanuumea Mod Lady

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    I was hoping to see someone start a thread on this book. I bought it a few weeks ago but haven't had time to read any of it yet. I adore Jane Austen, and remember liking Thackary and Balzac, so I guess I'll enjoy this one......am interested in hearing more opinions as folks get to read it.
     
  9. AuntiePam

    AuntiePam Cranky old broad

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    Eldanuumea, over at Shocklines (a horror-related message board), one reader loved it and another hated it. :)

    I'm encouraged by Aldarian's reasons for liking it, but discouraged by what Holbrook relayed about the book being too long and Clarke losing track of the story.
     
  10. JohnH

    JohnH Abstainer from Foolosophy

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    That is pretty spot on. Indulgent and severely affected as well. Not to mention the whole pretentious aspect of adopting a tone that somehow is supposed to raise mediocrity to some higher level. As much as I like style in a book, I really don't like when the style so clearly served as a "gimmick" as opposed to the author's clear voice. A shame really. Because there were moments that Clarke actually seemed to show through. Only to be quickly covered in the affectation. Basically the book reads like being blind drunk and hooking up with a Benjamin Moore tranny. You never actually get a glimpse of a true work. Its all makeup and clever draping. If I want Austen, I'll read Austen. Not some refugee from the defunct Pyschic Friends Hotline who sees overrated dead authors.
     
  11. Julian

    Julian Inter spem metumque iacto

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    Hmm. Just got my copy a few days ago. One of the reasons for buying it was that it somehow reminded me of books like Byatt's Possession (which I enjoyed greatly) and Palliser's The Quincunx (which I admired but ultimately didn't really like as much as I'd hoped). Is there any truth to this (admittedly rather spurious) association?
     
  12. AuntiePam

    AuntiePam Cranky old broad

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    I haven't read Possession, but I've read The Quincunx. It was many years ago though, and all I remember was that it was a huge book that held my interest and told a hell of a story.

    So not so spurious.
     
  13. Julian

    Julian Inter spem metumque iacto

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    Well, if you find the time & inclination - do please try A.S. Byatt's Possession. A wonderful and very literate Victorian/modern thriller/mystery/love story, as I recall. Not fantasy as such, but not too far removed from that either.
     
  14. AuntiePam

    AuntiePam Cranky old broad

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    Julian, I will.

    I just read a few pages at Amazon and it looks like something I could get into.
     
  15. hariseldon

    hariseldon Asimovian adept

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    it caught my eye too as it is being advertised on all the major online stores at the moment
    and when i see someone compare it to Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, i'll definitely have a go at it , being a huge fan of Victorian novels
    i will return to this topic with a follow-up after having read it
    but i must admit i wasn't going to read it at first, as i am rather sceptic when a book gets that much attention from a commercial point of view (almost felt as if they were trying too hard to create a hype, know what i mean?)...anyone had similar thoughts on this?
     
  16. Glelas

    Glelas Seven Mary Four

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    It took me 8 days to read 8 pages. After 1 page I would fall asleep.
     
  17. JohnH

    JohnH Abstainer from Foolosophy

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    I loved Palliser's book. I read it on a long plane trip and was simply amazed. Clarke on the other hand was a plain reading trip that in no way amazed me. Once again proving great authors can be reather poor judges when it comes to actually reading .
     
  18. Eldanuumea

    Eldanuumea Mod Lady

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    Yes, Possession is a scintillating love story that crosses the borders of time.......great read. (And Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam were wonderful in the film)
     
  19. FicusFan

    FicusFan Anitaverse Refugee

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    There seem to be a good number of interesting Victorian books around. I just picked up

    A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss and The Fiend in Human : A Victorian Thriller by John MacLachlan Gray both in Tradepaper. They seem to be Victorian mystery/thrillers.

    And then there is The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber - which is more HF.
     
  20. AuntiePam

    AuntiePam Cranky old broad

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    Also -- Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

    I've been reading Victorian over the past year or so too. The ones you mentioned, plus The Trial of Elizabeth Cree by Peter Ackroyd, two books featuring Herman Mudgett, the United States' first serial killer, and several of Emile Zola's books. I guess they can't be called Victorian, since they take place in France, but the time period is about the same.

    All the changes going on in the world at that time make for some damn fine reading.