In the beginning was a preface, and then an introduction, followed by some exposition, and then an opening.
Looking through the reviews, it appears many people either adore it or hate it. Frankly, I’m in neither camp, because I can’t work up enough emotion to care. It took a long time to become interested, and I finally had to resort to a strategy of reading only a few chapters at a time, setting free any expectation that this was a book that would pull me in and never let me go. It became the perfect book to read before bed, a non-habit forming Ambien that avoided unpleasant dreams while lulling me into sleep. The language and structure of the tale is a formidable barrier to easy enjoyment; this is Great Expectations, the original, uncut director’s copy, thick enough in mass market paperback to soak with water and turn into a paper-mache brick. The final obstacle to delight is the general distastefulness of Mr. Norrell. This is improved somewhat when Jonathan Strange enters the tale, and for a while I was able to read without Mr. Sandman paying a visit.
I found much of the tale philosophizing about the character of England, and the distinctions between the north and the south tedious as they are somewhat non-accessible and lack relevance to the non-English. In some ways, I suspect the cultural conflict might resemble American regional conflicts, but it takes a talented author to make the conflict relevant across oceans and time. I understand Clarke is doing; I just lack interest in the subject matter, so the voice starts to sound a lot like the adults in Charlie Brown. Muhua wa wa…
Unfortunately, the writing style and it’s take on various popular Victorian styles is monotonous for me. Although I enjoy the 19th century British mysteries, and Wodehousian humor, Clarke has neither the tightly woven mystery nor the snappy dialogue that keeps me interested in those forms. When it comes to writing style, I can see why some people would find her writing interesting, especially if they are fans of the time period; it just fails to resonate for me in the way it is presented. The footnotes occasionally amusing as they frequently contain opinionated commentary. I read recently that Clarke wrote the story in “bundles” and ended up working at fitting them together. In retrospect, this might explain some of the jumps in plotting and setting, and account for the way plots were set down and then picked up a hundred pages later.
I was pleased to discover the magical or supernatural elements play a larger role than I expected from reading other reviews. One of the characters and plotlines I struggled with was that of the “white-haired gentleman.” While it certainly brought magical elements to the story, I felt like he was a distraction and never fully woven into the plot. His obsession with Stephen, was particularly odd, and I never felt like I understood it’s connection to Norrell and Strange.
Clarke does sprinkle gentle humor throughout the story that occasionally caused twitters or giggles. One of the first lines to make me laugh:
“He was so clean and healthy and pleased about everything that he positively shone–which is only to be expected in a fairy or an angel but is somewhat disconcerting in an attorney.”
Two sleepy stars.