Read-Along: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — Volume I

NorrellFrom Goodreads: The year is 1806, England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains, the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrel. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.

I am participating in the read-along hosted by Vishy and Delia, and today is the day to review the first volume of the book. So here it goes…

Volume I: Mr. Norrell

I have to admit that I am having a hard time with this book. After reading the first 22 chapters of this book, I feel like the story is still getting set up. For the first half of Volume I, I wondered if Mr. Norrell was a good guy or not. That’s not a good thing, because it doesn’t feel like the reader is left hanging on purpose. Right now, I think that I am supposed to feel that he is essentially good, simply socially inept, and craving attention. But unfortunately, I am not sure.

Mr. Norrell did initially set out to revive magic in England and help the country in its fight against the French, which is a seemingly noble goal. He managed to get the ear of the English lords and conjured up some ghost ships that kept the French ships in their harbors for a while. At this point, I thought we had finally gotten to the point where things were happening, but somehow the story quietly settled down again right afterwards and focused on something different.

We have been briefly introduced to Jonathan Strange—and his father—but again, the story dropped him after a chapter and then did not mention him again until Chapter 22. At the moment, I fear I might not like Jonathan Strange very much either… He seems very superficial, more interested in appearances than substance.

Up to this point, we have encountered quite a number of people, but again, a lot of them made an appearance and then disappeared for long stretches. What happened to John Segundus, for example? Do we need to know? At some point in this first volume, Childermass, Drawlight, and Lascelles all have played small but seemingly important roles, yet they are not mentioned for chapters at a time. I am not sure what to make of that. Do I need to pay attention to them, or are they just “fillers”?

In addition to the book’s many characters whose importance to the story is hard to make out, I am also having some trouble with the narrator. (I will refer to the narrator as “she,” since the author is a woman, though I don’t want to imply that they are the same.). I’m having a difficult time with her varying distance to the story. Sometimes, she sounds just like a narrator, someone who tells us a story she has witnessed. At other times, she lets us know what people are thinking and feeling. As soon as I have adjusted my “view,” she steps back again, to take up a different string of the story. It feels very uneven to me.

I have to admit that the only reason I keep reading—other than the fact that I am participating in this read-along—is the fact that I really like the slightly sarcastic tone that is used here and there. Take this sentence, for example:

In London, the Ministers were quite astonished to find that, for once, they had done something the Nation approved.

Little digs like the one above could really pretty much apply to the governing body of any nation, don’t you think? I’m getting a little kick out of that, but that’s really not much to keep me reading. I also enjoy the setting of the novel (England and Magic go so well together), but at this point, I am really worried that I won’t be able to finish the book in the next two weeks, simply because I am not that eager to pick it up at night.

I do hope it will get better!

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7 comments

  1. I also feel the same about volume 1! Although I got through it quite quickly I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I think I have the same problem as you, I ‘m not sure who we should be rooting for or where our allegiances should lie and there was a lot of different characters and footnotes to contend with, which made it difficult to fully settle down and enjoy the story. I hope it gets better in volume 2 as well!

  2. Looks like we got off to a bumpy start, doesn’t it? I felt the same as you while reading the first volume – lots of characters, none of them described in depth, and probably the biggest problem, for me at least, was that I couldn’t choose a character to root for. Norrell is too grumpy and rude (you described him perfectly), Strange is nicer but still…and the others didn’t seem to be that important. One thing I can say though, is that in the second part the humor gets better, and the characters are not just fillers. It’s getting a bit more interesting. 🙂
    I really hope you will continue the read-along.

  3. Wonderful post, TJ. Sorry to know that you are not liking the book as much as you had hoped to. I agree with you on the characters – there are dozens of them introduced in the first part and after playing a part in a few scenes, they suddenly disappear. Hope some of them come back and play an important role in the rest of the story. Your thoughts on the narrator and her narrative style were quite thought-provoking. Hope the second volume of the book is better and you enjoy it more. Happy reading!

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