Welcome to the Chunkster Reading Challenge - a challenge which satisfies those readers who like their books fat and chunky!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Chunky Book Club: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell


This month's selection for the Chunky Book Club is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England's history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England--until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell's student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear. 
Time Magazine #1 Book of the Year « Book Sense Book of the Year « People Top Ten Books of the Year « Winner of the Hugo Award « A New York Times Notable Book of the Year « Salon.com Top Ten of 2004 «Winner of the World Fantasy Award « Nancy Pearl's Top 12 Books of 2004 « Washington Post Book World's Best of 2004 « Christian Science Monitor Best Fiction 2004 « San Francisco Chronicle Best Books of 2004 « Winner of the Locus Award for Best First Novel « Chicago Tribune Best of 2004 « Seattle Times 25 Best Books of 2004 « Atlanta Journal-Constitution Top 12 Books of 2004 « Village Voice "Top Shelf" « Raleigh News & Observer Best of 2004 « Rocky Mountain News critics' favorites of 2004 « Kansas City Star 100 Newsworthy Books of 2004 « Fort Worth Star-Telegram 10 Best Books of 2004 « Hartford Courant Best Books of 2004

Go to the dedicated website to learn more about the book and author.


Susanna Clarke was born in Nottingham in 1959, the eldest daughter of a Methodist Minister. She spent her childhood in towns in Northern England and Scotland and was educated at St Hilda?s College, Oxford. In 1992 she spent a year in County Durham in a home overlooking the North Sea where she began work on her first novel: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which was published by Bloomsbury in October 2004. She has published seven short stories and novellas in US anthologies. One, The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse, first appeared in a limited-edition, illustrated chapbook from Green Man Press. Another, Mr Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower, was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award in 2001. Clarke lives in Cambridge with her partner, the novelist and reviewer Colin Greenland.

Listen to Susanna Clarke discussing her memoir: A House in Fez

How Does the Discussion Work?
  • ANYONE may participate who has read the book.
  • Questions (below) are to stimulate discussion. You may choose to answer any, all or none of them...or you may pose your own questions for discussion.
  • Respond in comments on this post. I have activated the "reply" function in comments so that you may reply directly to someone else's comment if you wish to do so.
  • Consider subscribing to the comments so that you will be notified when someone posts a comment.
  • BE FOREWARNED: There may be spoilers contained in the questions and in the discussion below!!!

That's it! Have fun!!!

  1. General question: Did you enjoy the book? Why or why not.
  2. In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, instead of turning to engineering marvels to solve the problems of a new age, England seeks a magical renaissance. Does this preclude an Industrial Revolution, or do science and magic coexist in Clarke's universe? Do they develop on separate tracks, or is magic perhaps just another branch of science, like physics and chemistry?
  3. The novel superimposes characters, storylines, and an invented universe of legend and lore on figures, events, and mythology drawn from real English history. Would you classify the novel as historical fiction? At what point does it cross into the realm of outright fantasy? 
  4. Did you find the heavy footnotes distracting? Or did they add a contextual richness for the story?
  5. Who do you believe the narrator is? Is it one of the characters in the story or an objective observer? Is it a man or a woman? Is it a contemporary of the characters, or someone who lived later? Is it one person or more?
  6. Ultimately Strange realizes that he must become mad to perceive fairies and the land of Faerie. Does Norrell's earlier success in this area imply something about his own sanity? Does his rather sober personality and impassioned yet reasonable belief that magic must not be practiced by amateurs belie a madman's quest to control the destiny of English magic?
  7. The novel clearly belongs to the literary genre of epic fantasy, but is also has a lot to say about English society, the folly of war, the fickleness of public opinion, and historical inequalities of class, race and gender. Clarke lampoons a number of classic stereotypes (pompous government ministers, self-entitled aristocrats, amoral dandies, etc...). Could the novel also be considered a comedy of manners and English social commentary in the tradition of Jane Austen? What is the portrait it paints of Regency England?
  8. What does the novel have to say about relationships between men and women, and marriage?
  9. What is Clarke saying about race and class in her novel?
  10. Who is the ultimate "hero" of the novel?
  11. Almost every scene of the novel occurs in winter, yet the final chapter is set in spring. Is this a coincidence, or does it say something about the birth of a new social order?
  12. Most of the plot concerns the actions of men. However there are robust female characters who serve as foils for a great deal of the plot - many are viewed as one dimensional by the male characters. What is Clarke saying about the role of women in her novel's society? What does the novel say about the role of men?


    1. If I said about me that I am not exactly the biggest fan of fantasy, that would be a huge understatement. I used to like fairy tales as a child and am still quite fond of them but that's about it.

      When you put this title on your list, I wasn't too sure whether I shouldn't even skip this one. But, my son already had it on his shelf (he loves fantasy) and therefore I thought, what harm can it do, I can always put it aside. But - even though I wouldn't declare it my most favourite book of the year - I carried on reading it, all 1,024 pages of it.

      It is a lot more a Grimm's fairy tale with a little bit of Victoriana mixed in than a JRR Tolkien kind of fantasy novel. It is also more an alternate history book with a lot of links to non-existing literature. It almost feels like a Dickens novel. Quite entertaining, actually.

      Two magicians want to bring back magic to England. We meet historical figures like the Duke of Wellington or Lord Byron as well as some illustrious fictional inhabitants of fairieland. We can read a lot of quotes from the books about Magic that have presumably been written by either of the two protagonists or other magician characters from the book. I would have wished them to be printed at least as large as the rest as there are a lot of quotes, sometimes they contain whole stories by itself.

      As in so many fantasy books, the main theme is the fight between good and evil, who will win the big battle?

      In any case, as a fan of England, I was not disappointed with the book, even though this is not my favourite genre and never will be. But Susanna Clarke has an interesting writing style, I will look into her other writing, as well.

      You can also read my review here

      Marianne from Let's Read

      1. I'm glad you found this one a good read despite not liking the genre especially. I did not read the book - my life has been super hectic and although my intentions were good, I never cracked the spine. But, I'll keep this one in mind down the road. I'm not a huge fantasy fan either - in fact, I never read the genre...but I'm willing to give it a try!

        I hope others will post thoughts here as this book got a lot of votes at the start of the year (which is why it made the reading list for the book club!)

      2. I didn't know you'd had a vote but I only joined when the list was up already. How did you decide what books would be up for voting?

        Anyway, yes, I wouldn't want to read a lot of fantasy. But I didn't think "The Map of the World" was a big science fiction novel and I don't think this is a big "fantasy" one. So, all is good and I did enjoy both books even though I would have never picked up any of them from a shelf.

        So, thank you for introducing them to me.

        Marianne from Let's Read

    2. Around the first of the year I asked for nominations, Marianne - and then we put the nominations up for vote. That is how we ended up choosing our book club reads. I've been a bit disappointed that although we had a good vote turnout - we have had very little participation in the discussion. This happened the first year as well which is why this year I thought I'd let the group decide on the books...not sure we'll do the club again in 2014. It is a lot of work for me and I would really like to see more participation.

      I thank YOU for your consistency however! And I'm glad you read some books you might not otherwise have picked up!

      1. I don't blame you if you give up. I've seen this before. People are enthusiastic at first and then life interferes. I have enjoyed these reads, though, and will also read the last one, "Elizabeth I".

        I see you are also one of the more regular contributors on the "Read the Nobel" page. Which one is YOUR main page, I might follow it already but if not, I would love to. Seems like we have a lot of mutual interests.

        Marianne from Let's Read

    3. You can find me at http://wwww.caribousmom.com - The last month I've been a little slow with my reviews :) BUT, I have a lot of reviews there which you can browse by author by clicking on the reviews tab at the top of my blog. Thanks for asking!


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