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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Review by John Berlyne
Bloomsbury USA Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0747570558
Date: 08 September, 2004 List Price ?34.98 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

In a modern world much dominated by the constant pounding of our senses by incessant advertising, British author Susannah Clarke?s debut novel is a real rarity, for here is something to truly lives up to the hype.

In Georgian England, the practice of magic, once synonymous with the greatness of the country, is now a faded and all but lost art. Magic is present only in the theoretical discussions of fusty enthusiasts, groups of men who congregate in parish halls to talk together on the subject. They talk at length of John Uskglass, the legendary Raven King of the North, once the greatest magician of all, but now only the stuff of bucolic folklore. The gentlemen (theoretical) magicians of York also talk of one Mr Norell, a reclusive figure in the county and a man rumoured to be a practical magician.

US Edition ($27.95) - Available from Bloomsbury USA
Norell sets out on a mission to restore magic to England, but his righteous approach is that it should be him and only him who leads this crusade. Magic is not to be handled by the common man ? it is a gentleman?s art. To this end, Norell has spent years buying up every magic book he can lay his hands on and thousands of volumes are locked away in his library, safe from the prying eyes of the uneducated masses. Now, with all the knowledge he has at hand, he goes to the nations capital to propose that the noble art of magic be employed in war against Napoleon. Clarke?s masterstroke here is that she makes Norell not a manly figure of power and awe, but rather he?s a little man, fussy, petty, proud, intensely boring about his subject and not at all the enigmatic mystery that one might expect.

In London, Norell?s fame spreads quickly. He befuddles the French navy with a dazzling display of weather magic and resurrects the dead fianc? of a well known politician, Sir Walter Pole. To perform this latter task, he solicits the help of a powerful fairy and in doing so opens the way for magical mischief, for fairies are wilful creatures. Norell also meets and takes as an apprentice one Jonathan Strange, a charismatic and talented young magician with a beautiful wife. Strange is everything Norell is not and their relationship is a tense one. Norell is not one for sharing anything, most of all his knowledge and his books and this is not the quality one wants in a teacher. Strange on the other hand is eccentric, exuberant and drawn towards a similar type of magic. Wanting more than to sit at his master?s knee, he takes off to Portugal to become the official magician of Wellington?s army. At first he is greeted with suspicion and cold humour, but before long the advantages of his talents become apparent to Wellington and magic is soon one of the most powerful weapons in the British armoury.

In London, the fairy summoned by Norell, referred to only as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, has ensorcelled the beautiful now wife of Sir Walter Pole. Every night she must attend the fairy ball in his magical castle. Her butler too is captured in the same way and treated as a favourite by the fairy.

When Strange returns from the war, he finds the restrictions placed on him by Norell?s unwillingness to share his knowledge no longer acceptable and he decides to part company with his master. The two become rivals and even enemies and their divide splits the followers of English magic into two camps. When Strange?s wife Arabella is ensorcelled by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, Strange believes her dead and in his grief, he undertakes a grand tour to Venice. There he delves deeper and deeper into the darker magical paths and finds that, literally, that way madness lies. His pursuits lead him into confrontation with the gentleman with the thistle-down hair and his old mentor Mr Norell and as for what then ensues, well, you?ll have to read that for yourself.

At nearly 800 pages, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell is a sumptuous feast for the reader and the plot is far thicker than I?m able to convey above. What stands out here is the sheer elegance of the writing, the style of which has been likened to what authors such as Jane Austen and Dickens might have produced had they been genre writers. Clarke?s feel of period and style is superbly depicted and her research into the history of the world she is writing about is intricately woven into the narrative, in setting, situation and character. Wellington and Byron are alive and well within these pages. The effect is hugely impressive and yet extremely accessible. I can?t remember the last time I waded through such a large novel, but still wanted more at the end of it. The magical element is wonderfully refined and understated, but it is no less powerful for that and the eccentricities of these richly defined characters are full of such charm and humour that really the whole novel is a delight and a privilege to read. Sequels are inevitable and I for one cannot wait!

Very highly recommended.

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