Harry Potter for adults
Two scholars try to help England defeat Napoleon with magic - and almost destroy themselves
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 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."
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. It's a 19th-century version of "Queer Eye for the Magical Guy."
His reputation improves further when he agrees to take on a student, a precocious young man named Jonathan Strange, whose scholarly passion is combined with the winning social graces that Mr. Norrell can never manage. "Strange was everyone's idea of what a magician ought to be," Clarke writes. "He was tall; he was charming; he had a most ironical smile."
Theirs is a peculiar partnership: Strange respects his mentor enormously, but finds him tedious and annoying. Norrell, meanwhile, is thrilled to have such a talented student, but hides books from him and remains paranoid about creating a rival. There's a typically comic moment in which Norrell clings to a volume he's just recommended to Strange, refusing to let go even as he hands it to him.
Only a touch of pixie dust falls in the first few hundred pages of this marvelous historical novel, told with a dry wit that will appeal to fans of Jane Austen. Either by instinct or design, Clarke drops supernatural elements into the plot slowly and sparingly, luring fantasy readers along, while acclimating skittish newcomers to this genre gradually.
Determined to convince a skeptical government that magic can help the war effort, Norrell suspends his principles against employing fairies and invokes one of these wily figures to revive the wife of an important politician. The spell works, but it sets in motion a conflict with a more dangerous foe than Napoleon, one that eventually twists the relationship between Strange and Norrell and threatens to plunge England into eternal darkness.
Clarke mingles military and magical history with remarkable success, conveying the horrors of war along with her own surreal inventions, such as a fleet of decoy ships made of rain or a battlefield where hands of mud pull French cavalry to the ground. The eerie beauty of these moments along with the absence of cool magic devices to market at Burger King keep "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" from clunking to earth. Clarke knows just how light bends when the natural world overlaps with the supernatural world and all the shadows "turn and face another way." She's as deft at describing the flutter of gossip at a dinner party in London as she is at describing a gown covered in small shrieking mouths in Fairyland.
In a fantastically paced conclusion, the ominous horror of what's preying on England comes into focus, even as the setting shifts into the cloudy world of enchantment that Clarke captures with such haunting effect. Both Strange and Norrell must set aside old prejudices to save themselves and those they love. Their success is uncertain, but Clarke's isn't. Move over, little Harry. It's time for some real magic.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to Ron Charles.