One might wonder about the reception of an 800-page novel, complete with footnotes, that creates a fictional history of English magic. Could it possibly reach a wider audience than its core fantasy base? If there is justice in the literary world, then the answer will be a resounding yes. Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury, 800 pp., $27.95) is one of the most engrossing, entertaining and well-written novels of recent years.
The novel tells the story of the reemergence of practical magic during the Regency period in England. Its two main practitioners are Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. Norrell is an isolated academic who has spent his life in the study of magic and tends to hoard his knowledge while despising other magicians. Strange, a young dilettante, comes to magic almost accidentally, when Vinculus, a ragged pseudo-magician, mysteriously identifies him as one of the two magicians mentioned in an ancient prophecy. Strange receives the news with little enthusiasm: "I must say you do not make the life sound very appealing. I hope to be married soon and a life spent in the dark woods surrounded by thieves and murderers would be inconvenient to say the least. I suggest you chuse someone else."
Needless to say, Strange does become a magician and Norrell's pupil. After Norrell raises an influential lord's fiancée from the dead, the English government takes notice and the two men are hired to help England defeat Napoleon, Norrell from the comfort of his study and Strange with the soldiers on the continent.
Strange becomes as committed to magic as Norrell, eventually becoming his teacher's rival. The novel grows darker as both men suffer the results of their own ambition and pride. Clarke adeptly weaves various plot strands (and footnotes) together into a cohesive ending. And the final page contains a bittersweet scene which hints that we have not seen the end of this magical world.
No bare plot summary can do credit to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. This may be a world where magic makes a reappearance, but it's also Regency England: there's constant jockeying for position, and Clarke's humorous portrait of the social climbing and unctuous Drawlight takes a page right out of Jane Austen.
In a profile in The New York Times Magazine, Clarke admits that she has always liked magicians, "but there was no reason to suppose anyone else would." Readers who like magicians will surely love this book, but it would be a mistake for the non-fantasy reader to ignore it. This fascinating novel is for anyone who enjoys wit, compelling characters and the magic of an imaginative mind.
Susanna Clarke reads at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Sept. 17 at 6 p.m.
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