Bloomsbury Books ($27.95)
by Kelly Everding
It all begins with a simple question—"Why was there no more magic done in England?" —and a fantastic and witty history explodes with a Big Bang. In her first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke reinvents an England seeped in magic that lies just below the surface, neglected and unpracticed. The "theoretical magicians" of 1806 were used to doing nothing more than writing dull papers on "magic which was done long ago" until two of their number decide to contact a reputed hermit who "passed his days and nights studying rare magical texts in his wonderful library." Mr. Norrell, as if waiting for the catalytic appearance of these two men, makes a stunning statement that he is a practicing magician, and proves it with a horrific display of power—much to the chagrin of the York magicians, who are forced to disband and give up their studies of magic, per the agreement Norrell has coerced them to sign.
Thus, within 40 pages of this 782-page tome, Clarke beautifully demonstrates the calculating behavior of one of her titular protagonists. Although considered "the dullest man in Yorkshire," Mr. Norrell proves to be quite the Dickensian character—a somewhat cowardly, covetous, and conservative gentleman stubbornly stuck in his ways. Yes, he wants to bring magic back to England, but he wants to keep it all to himself; at one point, someone describes him as "a fishmonger who hopes to persuade people that the sea does not exist." Mr. Norrell hordes magical texts—for the good and safety of England, of course—and establishes himself as the great magician of England, working with Parliament to fight Napoleon Buonaparte's advancing army.
Norrell's foil is Jonathan Strange, a gentleman of large inheritance who, with nothing much better to do, decides to become a magician—largely due to the fact that a vagabond recites to him a prophesy that he will become one. Strange finds he is a natural at magic and does quite well with the limited resources he has, until he finally meets up with Mr. Norrell and becomes his pupil. Norrell ekes out a few books at a time to Strange, which causes some tension: "He told me to apply myself," says Strange. "I was very near asking him what I was supposed to read when he has all the books." Indeed, books seem to propel this story forward: Mr. Norrell's voracious collecting and hording of them, Clarke's references and footnotes to the plethora of magical texts of centuries past, and the one book Mr. Norrell is unable to acquire because of "book-murder." The result of this grows ever more astounding as we learn how the magical book eventually takes form and proves to be the prime mover of the whole novel. Clarke also has fun lampooning the novelists of the day; when Norrell is called upon to give Napoleon nightmares and fails due to his spectacular lack of imagination, one Minister tried to persuade the other Ministers that they should commission Mr. Beckford, Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Radcliffe to create dreams of vivid horror that Mr. Norrell could then pop into Buonoparte's head. But the other Ministers considered that to employ a magician was one thing; novelists were quite another and they would not stoop to it.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is thus not only about magic but about books—about what is written in them and how we use that knowledge. Clarke pits Norrell's conservative censorship against Strange's liberal abandon, showing that neither philosophy quite works alone. Perhaps that is why, despite their differences and conflicts, Strange and Norrell are compelled to be together. Magic and books are the glue of their relationship. Eventually magic escapes Norrell's grasp and becomes written in nature: in a bird's flight, in the tree's dance, and in the water's laughter.
Part of the charm of this tale is how Clarke unspools an elaborate history for England, going back hundreds of years to the reign of the Raven King, a magician who divided the kingdom of England and ruled the north. The Raven King was human, but raised by fairies—a notoriously unreliable race of people who enjoy mischief and kidnapping humans to serve them in the magical/alternate underworld they inhabit. Many of Clarke's footnotes provide the background of the stormy relationship between humans and fairies, showing how English magicians often summoned fairies and bound them to serve their own purposes. As a book-learned magician, Mr. Norrell tries to squelch the past and disown the Raven King, but his foolhardy desire to control magic backfires on him, and he commits the type of crime against English magic he rails against throughout the entire book: he summons a fairy to perform a grisly, unnatural task just to gain favor with the English government. By summoning this fairy, this "man with the thistle-down hair," Norrell unleashes a surreal and alien magic upon a few poor, unsuspecting, and undeserving people—including Stephen Black, a statuesque ex-slave and servant whom the fairy decides should replace mad George as King of England, and Strange's own wife.
Clarke does a spectacular job of writing a 19th-century novel in the 21st century, replete with wry wit, quaint British spellings (ancle, surprize), wonderful characterizations, catty conversations that reveal the barriers of class at that time, riveting and often funny footnotes (one runs four pages long) in which she furthers our education of magicians and books, as well as ironic asides catching characters in contradictions and lies, and the very subtle way in which she interjects herself as the narrator—omniscient yet personal—privy to every detailed and intimate conversation. This is the kind of book you do not want to end—ever—and if our luck holds out, Clarke will provide another book much like it, one that will explore the magic of England through the eyes and experiences of the "lower classes," the servants and street magicians who play a vital yet somewhat tangential role in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. For now, however, the enchantment of Clarke's writing should make anyone believe that magic has indeed returned to England.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004