The prospect of having to read an 800-page novel billed as "Harry
Potter for adults" was enough to make this weary book critic pine
for an invisibility cloak. But for those of you who, like me, can't
endure another charmless opening at the Dursleys', take heart:
"Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" is no Harry Potter knockoff. It's
altogether original - far closer to Dickens than Rowling. In fact,
I'm so in love with Susanna Clarke's debut novel that I must have
been beaned on the head with a golden snitch. Its appearance on the
Booker longlist last week adds a nice flourish to the launch.
Clarke has concocted a thoroughly enchanting story of the early
19th century when Gilbert Norrell tried to bring "practical magic"
back to England. The book looks like one of those omnivorous tomes
that couldn't bare to drop a single passage, but it reads like a
distillation of some far larger body of work, a mere sliver of what
it could have included.
And the elaborate structure of footnotes is just as enjoyable as
the main story. In Clarke's wry, slightly arch tone, they provide
faux bibliographic references and fill out England's magical history
with myths and legends of the Raven King, who once ruled both human
and faerie kingdoms.
The scene opens in 1806, when the theoretical magicians of York
are content to study magic rather than do it. "Our time is past,"
they concede. In fact, "they did not want to see magic done; they
only wished to read about it in books."
When they get word that their reclusive neighbor Mr. Norrell
claims to be a "practicing" magician, they take offense - or assume
he's mad. But Norrell makes a bargain with them, promising to
demonstrate his skill if they'll agree to give up studying magic
This, it turns out, is a telling proposal. He's a proud, jealous
man, animated by contradictory desires. "Within Mr. Norrell's dry
little heart there was," Clarke writes, "an ambition to bring back
magic to England." And yet, at every step, he designs ways to
control it, restrict access to it, and keep himself its sole
practitioner. He buys up every magic book in England, hoarding them
in his vast libraries. He publishes a magazine that discredits
anyone else who claims to practice magic, and he insists on
rewriting English history to repress any record of the Raven King.
Mr. Norrell is a wonderfully odd character in what's practically
an encyclopedia of wonderfully odd characters. He's ominous and
imperious, and yet helpless and fretful. After agonizing over the
prospect of leaving his scholar's haunt and its blessed privacy, he
moves to London to promote the cause, but he's so chronically boring
and socially inept that "London found him disappointing," Clarke
writes. "He did no magic, cursed no one, foretold nothing."
Finally, desperate to attract attention, he employs the services
of two insufferable dandies who decorate his house and engineer his
social engagements with a kind of gaudy flourish entirely at odds
with his personality. …