Triviana


An intellectually interesting exercise
that doesn't have enough magic charm

''Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell''
By Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury, 782 pp., $27.95)

Buy at Amazon.

Reviewed by John Orr
August 2004

Bloomsbury, the British publisher that first gave J.K. Rowling ink and paper for ''Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone,'' and made a lot of money doing so, has spent a large chunk of its fortune tub-thumping another first novel about magic, ''Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,'' by Susanna Clarke. The money was well spent; several weeks before the book was released, Clarke was subject of a gushing interview in New York Times magazine and a flattering review in Time.

The novel has been called ''Harry Potter for adults.'' To her credit, Clarke has said she does not take such a claim seriously.

There are things to admire about ''Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,'' but at 782 pages, there is just too much of it, for how little it ultimately delivers in terms of wisdom and amusement.

Clarke's book posits an imaginary England where magic is an accepted part of the nation's history. But by the autumn of 1806, when this tale begins, magic had not been practiced in England for ''rather more than 200 years.'' There are men who study magic (no women, in that age of repression), but only from books (many of which are cited in often funny footnotes). They do not practice magic. ''A gentleman might study the history of magic (nothing could be nobler) but he could not do any.''

John Segundus, at a meeting of the Learned Society of York Magicians, asks why magic is not being practiced, which leads to an argument, and a visit to the reclusive Mr. Norrell, who is rumored to have a large library of magic books and books about magic.

Norrell says, ''Magic is not ended in England. I myself am quite a tolerable magician.''

Challenged to demonstrate, Norrell first exacts a promise from the other scholars that they'll stop studying magic if his demonstration succeeds. In an amusing scene, Norrell brings stone statues in York cathedral to life, and the statues regale all with tales of what they've seen in their hundreds of years.

We learn that Norrell has been buying up books about magic not just to read them himself, but to deprive other people of having them. Norrell is the Bill Gates of his time, obtaining other people's research and cleverness to control it himself. His aim is to restore magic to England and persuade the government to use his ability in the war against Napoleon.

But Norrell is unable to win the government's confidence until he succeeds in bringing back to life a young woman who has died just a few days before her marriage to a cabinet minister, Sir Walter Pole.

Norrell works his reanimation with the secret aid of a fairy -- ''A tall, handsome person with pale, perfect skin and an immense amount of hair, as pale and shining as thistle-down'' -- who does the actual reviving of Miss Wintertowne, in exchange for half her life and one of her little fingers.

That is classic trouble, of course. If we dare -- in fiction, anyway -- to usurp God's will regarding death, we will be in trouble, whether or not God is an overt part of the story. (He is not, in this book.)

So, with another 700 pages yet to read, we already know what the final conflict of this book must be.

Eventually the Linus Torvalds to Norrell's Bill Gates shows up: Jonathan Strange. He is tall, handsome and charming (unlike the pinched and boring Norrell), a gentleman hobbyist who'd taken up magic largely so his beloved, Arabella, won't think him just a shiftless layabout.

Strange becomes a student of Norrell, and the two become limited partners in confounding the French with magic, though Norrell keeps a majority of his knowledge -- and books -- hidden from Strange.

But when Strange actually goes to the battlefield to serve the Duke of Wellington, he begins making up his own magic, and becomes practiced and powerful. Upon his return to England, he and Norrell quarrel and break their friendship. Strange wants to bring magic to the masses; Norrell wants to keep it controlled. (Think Linux vs. Windows.)

All this is clever stuff. But Clarke is not just writing about imaginary events of the 19th century, she is writing in the style of 19th-century British novelists: ''On days when Mr Norrell did not dine abroad Mr Drawlight took his mutton at Mr Norrell's house in Hanover-square -- which Mr Norrell imagined Mr Drawlight must be very glad to do, for Childermass had told him that Mr Drawlight had scarcely any money.''

Sentences like that cannot be found in, say, Hemingway.

Clarke evokes Charles Dickens -- but not the stylistically confident Dickens of ''Great Expectations,'' rather the rambling, leisurely prose of ''The Pickwick Papers.'' It's skillfully done, but the style will test the patience of a lot of readers. Clarke's cleverly crafted fantasy will earn some admiration among a small audience, but it's too lacking in fun, charm and meaningfulness to keep a large audience. Its life lessons are very slight, and none of them original. We already knew the 19th-century Brits were sexual and national chauvinists.

Still, the last 150 pages or so are exciting and fun, despite the slogging needed to reach them. By then many conflicts have arisen and the world has been greatly changed by the magic of Norrell, Strange and the thistle-haired fairy.

To Clarke's credit, not all the world is set right again by the end of this book. And yes, something like a sequel is in the works.