'Strange' mixes brew of practical magic, history

Books

October 03, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Staff

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Bloomsbury. 782 pages. $27.95.

In England, it is the worst of times. Politicians watch nervously as Napoleon's armies sweep though Europe. King George III is barking mad and his government universally detested. The Raven King -- Britain's greatest magician -- has been gone for at least 200 years and practical magic has almost completely disappeared from English life.

Two magicians hope to bring it back.

The first is Gilbert Norrell, a humorless recluse from York who has spent a lifetime hoarding books about magic and painstakingly teaching himself the craft. He takes up residence in London to lobby government officials about the potential usefulness of English magic. Soon a second magician -- the dashing, charismatic Jonathan Strange -- joins him.

As their powers grow, it becomes clear that magic is steeped in controversy. "I have never experienced magic at first hand before," says one character. "It is most eerie and unpleasant. How in the world is a man to know what to do when nothing behaves as it should?"

The Oxford-educated Clarke spent a decade writing Jona-than Strange, her debut novel. Though it's been compared to Harry Potter, the allusion is misleading. Clarke's writing is more poetic than J.K. Rowling's, her plot infinitely more complex, her characters darker and more completely rendered.

Comparison to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens is more apt, because of Clarke's formal language. Her arcane spellings -- she uses chuse, surprize, and shew -- transport readers to 19th-century England. Friends "inquire after" one another, difficult tasks are "quite impossible," and visitors wait in drawing-rooms before they are "attended to."

Clarke's imagination constantly delights. She describes a mundane act of magic -- rendering an opponent inarticulate -- with spectacular imagery. An enchanted character finds that words turn "to mist and nothingness in his mouth." The narrative moves in unexpected ways -- and swiftly, too; despite the book's marathon length, it is a quick read.

For obvious reasons, authors have considerable latitude when they write about magic -- a freedom that can be easily abused. Clarke constructs limitations for her magic and sticks to them, making it easy to suspend disbelief. The magic practiced by Norrell and Strange is similar to computer programming -- rules must be learned and obeyed. Magic can do a lot, but it is constrained by an internal logic.

Likewise, the plot is constrained by real events in English and European history. The Duke of Well-ington beats back Napoleon in Spain. The beginning of popular unrest in the North worries members of Parliament. Real-life figures, great and small, make appearances throughout the novel.

Nearly each page of Jonathan Strange contains something new and unusual, whether it is an image, a scrap of dialogue, or an enchantment. Clarke has worked disparate influences through her hyper-imagination and produced an enthralling, unique read.

Annie Linskey is an editorial assistant at The Sun.

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