Classic review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
A delightful, intelligent fantasy that has been called "Harry Potter for adults."
[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Aug. 31, 2004.] 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.Skip to next paragraph
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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 forever.
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."