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

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 Norrell. 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.

As mentioned previously, I am participating in the read-along hosted by Vishy and Delia. We are two weeks in, and today is the day to review the second volume of the book. I did not finish the entire Volume II. With all the snow we got this last week, my usual routine was interrupted. Instead of reading during my lunch break, I was busy going sledding with the kiddos. So I am about 40 pages short of finishing, but I am determined to catch up and finish on time. With that being said, here’s my review of the almost completed second volume…

Volume II: Jonathan Strange

I am happy to say that I have started to enjoy the book a little more since starting Volume II. The story has picked up, and in Jonathan Strange I have finally found a character that I can like. At first, he seemed to be a shallow person without direction, but becoming a magician has provided him with a purpose in life.

There are a number of things that I liked, and I will simply list them for now:

  • I had fun reading about Jonathan Strange in Spain, trying to help Wellington defeat Napoleon. While there were, of course, a number of magical elements in this part, it felt well developed and realistic. We can see Strange grow as a person as he slowly figures out the best application of his magic. I continue to enjoy the slightly sarcastic tone of the narration. I can imagine the outrage of the Spanish people when the war is over but the landscape of their country continues to be slightly off.
  • On page 334 of my edition, we have the first mention of John Uskglass—who gives his name to the third volume of this book. I have to admit that the growing importance of him, the Raven King, has caught me a bit by surprise. Initially, I didn’t see the book going into this direction.
  • The mystery surrounding the gentleman with the thistle-down hair continues to grow. He still has his hold over Lady Pole and Stephen, and he also has an interest in Arabella. He is quite powerful, yet also out of touch with reality. He has a wonderful time with the mad king, and he is determined to put Stephen on the English throne. I don’t know yet where to place him in this story.
  • I really like the idea of mirrors connecting strange places and offering a way into the unknown. Strange’s excursion into the mirror gives him an idea of everything that is out there that he doesn’t know. It is the beginning of the end of his life as Mr. Norrell’s apprentice.
  • There are times when I am really enjoying the language of this book:
    “Walking through these narrow streets was, thought Stephen, rather like losing oneself in the folds of an enormous linen napkin.”
    “He had decided that the correct attitude to take was one of dignified moral superiority softened by a very moderate amount of apology.”
    These are two well-written sentences, in my opinion.

While my appreciation for the book has grown with Volume II, the fact that I have a bulleted list in my review makes obvious the issue I continue to have: I still don’t have the feeling of a cohesive story. There are so many pieces here that I wonder if they are all truly necessary. And there are times when I am thrown off by a character’s behavior. For example, neither Jonathan nor Arabella seems to mind that he is off to Spain for three years. Yet when Strange plans to explore the land behind the mirrors, Arabella acts almost hysterical. I found myself regarding her with the same baffled surprise shown by Sir Walter. For a moment, I thought that maybe she was now “possessed” by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, because her very emotional reaction was so out of character. But after a day or so, she’s perfectly reasonable again and he has no problem postponing his exploration until she can agree to let him go.

In addition, my patience with the footnotes is now wearing thin, especially since we are now encountering information in parentheses… information that would make a perfect and appropriate footnote. This in turn deepens my impression that the author is not quite sure what the tone of the book should be.

Oh well, I have another 380 pages to read. If the book continues to improve as it has, then the ending should be quite good. 🙂

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6 comments

  1. Wonderful post, TJ! It is interesting the John Uskglass is the Raven King. It is also interesting that the man with the thistle-down hair is becoming more important as the book progresses. I loved that sentence you have quoted about ‘losing oneself in the folds of an enormous linen napkin’ – so beautiful! Sorry to know that the footnotes are still bothering you. I remember reading one which went on for pages. I think Susanna Clarke is really having a footnote party here 🙂 Hope you enjoy reading volume 3. Happy reading!

  2. I didn’t see the importance of the John Uskglass, the Raven King, either until the second volume. I wonder if he actually appears in person in the third volume as it is named after him. I also feel as if there are a lot of minor story lines and, considering the slow pace of the novel (well to me it still feels quite slow), I wonder how Clarke will tie them all up. Surely they all have to connect in some way!

    I have only just finished volume two (you are in for a surprise!) so now I will go and write up my thoughts! I’m glad you’re enjoying the book more.

  3. Great review of the second volume! I’m glad to see you are enjoying the book more.
    I suppose it was deemed way riskier to go to war than going into a mirror. That might explain Arabella’s reactions to these events.
    It was a lot of fun to read about the magic Strange performed during the war. The part about the bridge was particularly funny.

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