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Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell

by Susanna Clarke

(Bloomsbury, 777 pages, advance reading copy reviewed, available in hardback, September 2004, priced £17.99.)

Review by John Toon

England, at the dawn of a new century -- the nineteenth century. Magic left England some three centuries earlier and has not been cover scanpractised since, although there is no shortage of gentlemen who wish to study the lost art and pronounce themselves expert in it. Indeed, theoretical magic is one of the noblest callings for the rich idler, while those who claim to be practical magicians -- generally street conjurors and petty criminals -- are held in the lowest regard. Into this milieu arrives a learned recluse with genuine practical ability. This is Gilbert Norrell, a man whose aim is the restoration of English Magic -- and to ensure that it's done his way, he goes to great lengths to buy up every magical text in the country and to put down every other would-be magician.

It's therefore somewhat of a surprise for him when a dashing young man by the name of Jonathan Strange appears on the London scene, claiming to be a self-taught magician. Rivalry seems to be on the cards, but instead Norrell takes Strange on as an apprentice; together the duo undertake magical projects for the British government, and work to confound the ambitions of the French Emperor Napoleon by sorcerous means. Yet all is not well. Norrell, opinionated but duplicitous, has secretly performed fairy-magic of the sort he publicly condemns, and has unleashed a rapacious evil on London society. Strange, whimsical but headstrong, harbours a desire to retrace the steps of John Uskglass, the Raven King -- former three-hundred-year ruler of the North of England -- and indulges his obsession to the exclusion and at the expense of all else. The two inevitably come to blows, but while they focus their attentions on each other, danger threatens Strange's wife and the household of Norrell's patron.

Strange & Norrell has a flavour to it that I, being largely ignorant of nineteenth century literature, consider Dickensian. There are the immoral grotesques, such as Norrell's self-appointed assistants in London, to whom Dickensian justice is meted out, and the good-hearted womenfolk and working men, who get Dickensian injustice instead. The first part of the book opens with a faintly Pickwick-esque society of theoretical magicians, which gives way in the second part to a similarly clubby relationship between the gentlemen magicians and the government ministers who employ them. The published version promises 27 illustrations which are lacking in the review copy, although I'd envisage something in the style of Boz's engravings. Clarke's wonderfully dry wit, however, and her use of the particular literary phrasing of the period are decidedly Austenesque. (Damn! that's blown a perfectly good lazy comparison.)

But leaving aside all this, it's the story itself that makes Strange & Norrell the great book that it is. If I'm going to stick with a book this size and enjoy it, it needs to be pretty gripping. I can honestly say I resented having to put Strange & Norrell down to do little things like work, eat and sleep. Chapter after chapter of incident and intrigue kept me thoroughly hooked, and Clarke keeps us guessing about the resolution of the various plotlines until the very end. The persistent footnotes, I imagine, will irk as many readers as they entertain, although personally I'm entertained. Little side-stories plucked from a fantastic mythos of English magic fill the bottoms of the pages, fleshing out an entire world beyond the confines of the book. The overall effect is, so to speak, spell-binding.

The superlatives haven't yet been invented that could do this book justice. An 800-page monster written in a nineteenth-century style, it might not seem at first to be The Book For You. Think again; Strange & Norrell has already been nominated for awards, not least the Booker Prize (it made the longlist, but sadly not the shortlist) -- and it's only been in the shops a month or so. This book deserves recognition, and your time. There is one word I can think of to describe it: Magic. Strange & Norrell has taken the very notion of magic and made it its own.

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