About Writers, book reviews, reading, writing technique

The Wonderful World of Susanna Clarke


I had read a portion of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell very quickly, to get a feel for the work, to see if I was ready to devote myself to eight-hundred pages. I am! I am rereading more carefully, and I have watched a few episodes of the Netflix series, to see how it translates to the screen.

I have to say that the thing that I most enjoy about the story is not the plot itself. I am hooked on the execution. It is fleshed out with wonderfully dense historical tidbits, faux references to this storied magician or that one, notations of their books, publishers, and publishers’ addresses, background on various factions of magic, a ballad even, all set forth in scholarly-looking footnotes. All of this delights me no end.

I enjoy the atmosphere of the piece, the intricate description, stately phrasing of a gravitas wholly in keeping with the theme of Magic Restored To Its Proper Place In England. For me, the true magic of the book is the narrative style. There is a great deal of very impressive telling:

“Excellent reasons which had seemed so substantial a moment ago were turning to mist and nothingness in his mouth, his tongue and teeth could not catch hold of even one of them to frame it into a rational English sentence.” Such a stylish encapsulation cannot be conveyed on film, and what a pity.

“… and as our narrative progresses, I will allow the reader to judge the justice of this portrait.” Clarke intrudes fairly often, another lovely period touch. The enormous footnotes may not range as far afield as mine do in Sly, but they are entertaining and I will eventually read them all.

The Netflix movie is absolutely gorgeous, but it does not capture the spirit of the book. It is the artistry of the narrative that has made it a classic. A world has been created on these pages, that drags us to a time and place in a way that the film does not. Who has read Jonathan Strange? Do you agree? Or does the lyrical phrasing and overload of tangential information (that I eat up) put you off?

The Netflix series lacks distance from the here and now, that all the walking through mirrors doesn’t remedy. It lacks the flavor of the print piece. This (gently) mannered prose is a mesmerizing step back from reality, and it plays a large part in the enormous pleasure I get from the story.

The film is beautifully done. The sets are stunning. The casting is wonderful. The story is faithfully told as far as the bones of it go. But the filmed version lacks the magic of the book. The book is a breathtaking example of total-immersion world-building. I am enthralled. I am taking notes right and left on matters small and large.

You may expect a new bit on Sly practicing (working with his tabby markings) to affect a disdainful raised eyebrow, in my updated chapter one. Thanks for the seed idea, Susanna Clarke. Many phrases have sparked spin-off business of my own. For me, this book is a treasure trove of possibilities, particularly in relation to Sly’s bookishness, which is always fun to contemplate.

What rare world-building can you recommend? I’m into it!


8 thoughts on “The Wonderful World of Susanna Clarke

  1. GD Deckard says:

    “The film is beautifully done. … But the filmed version lacks the magic of the book. The book is a breathtaking example of total-immersion world-building.”

    This goes to the heart of what books can add to a story that films cannot. The world as experienced by the reader through the characters includes much that cannot be visually captured.

    Great post, Mimi!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “I wrote about the experience of reading the book in my online journal, and I wrote to Susanna’s editor telling her that it was to my mind the finest work of English fantasy written in the previous seventy years . . .

    I was wrong about one thing, and one thing only . . . I had thought that [it] would be a book for the few.”

    –Neil Gaiman; intro to the 2009 edition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

    Liked by 2 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I thought I was no great fan of fantasy. I was wrong. Lord of the Rings is, of course, in a class by itself. Aside from LOTR, it takes a literary treatment to really turn me on. I have yet to read Le Guin. That might do it for me also.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. GD Deckard says:

    I picked up a copy of The Hobbit, for the first time in years, and was struck by Tolkien’s marvelous sentence structure. Each sentence was a journey into his world. Hanging out with you and Carl and the others here has helped me to realize that my English teachers misled me into believing a proper sentence is a discrete thought. Tolkien’s sentences built worlds.

    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”


    Liked by 2 people

    • Watch our blog post space for a video segment on the power and delight of . . . the sentence. Coming soon, GD! I think all gathered here under our banner will revel and delight in the remarks of two learned professors who teach creative writing.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Im afraid I haven’t read the novel, though it has always intrigued me. I’m such a slow, overburdened reader that I never got to it. Your description increases my interest, decidedly. Nor have I seen the movie, since I wouldn’t see a movie of a book I was planning to read some day.

    Writing and filmmaking are both fantastic ways of telling story, and each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Writing allows the world to be created in the head of the reader (as GD suggests) giving it a vividness and personal poignance that film can only approximate. We, as readers, become participants in the creation of the world on the pages. That doesn’t mean the description or world building has to be as lush and sweeping as Susanna Clarke’s apparently is. A single, perfectly placed detail can make a world come alive for the reader just as effectively. But I admire and enjoy the kind of total immersion world building I’m picturing from your description.

    I’m often a little saddened when I read book reviews that only speak of the plot of a book. Many seem to regard style as a mere hindrance and distraction, as if they don’t want anything to remind them they aren’t watching a movie. A good author can do both—not only spin a gripping tale but also beguile, intrigue, excite and confound us with the words themselves. It becomes a far richer experience than merely engaging with the plot and the characters.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Confession: I bought the book when it was first released; got through the first chapter and put it aside to read other, more pressing volumes which demanded my time and attention. Untold personal crises and successive, savage desolations of my library later I’ve yet to return to the book. This is no comment on the power and efficacy of Susanna Clarke’s writing; rather it is a lament and a vow: I must return to the book. And soon. . . .

      Liked by 2 people

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