Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

By Judith Evans

It's the first decade of the 19th century, and societies of theoretical magic exist all over England – studying the history of magic with unspoken relief that the dangerous art is no longer practised. But by accumulating a magnificent library of books (much rarer things, of course, than they are today), the otherwise unadventurous Mr Norrell studies until he is able to revive the spirit of magic itself. Bringing his great news to London, Norrell proves himself by making stones speak and reviving a young heiress from the dead. He is soon employed to assist the government in the Napoleonic wars; but both his impulsive pupil, Jonathan Strange, and the eerie faerie magic Norrell invokes take the new English wizardry beyond the patriotic and wholesome and into treacherous ground.

Susanna Carke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is written in an arch, Austenesque style that gently sends up all its characters, including the narrator of its tongue-in-cheek pedantic footnotes. Apart from magic, history takes a familiar form; Wellington's battles progress much as we know them, except they were actually won with a few behind-the-scenes spells. Much of this magic proceeds with an oddly routine feel – rivers are moved and roads created in a businesslike blink of an eye. But other spells linger in the mind's eye: ships made of rain, talking gargoyles, or the faerie magic that Norrell unwisely calls up. The eerie and exhausting fairy parties, the king's roads behind a mirror: these echo an ancient but sinister english magical tradition, and create a sense of cold peril, always just out of sight. And to hear the truly uncanny described in Regency drawing-room-speak is itself unnatural, neatly reinforcing the story's spookiness.

The idea of combining fantasy, newly hauled from geekdom into the mainstream, with the Regency comedy of manners, is deliciously funny. There's a lovely cameo from the mad King George, and a slightly heavy-handed one from Lord byron. But the human interest in the novel is slight; some fairly major characters still seem like near-strangers at the end, and there's a weird absence of recognisable motive in many of their actions. What may have been an attempt to deepen the characters beyond obvious "types" sometimes results in them seeming amorphous and imperfectly drawn. One character, for instance, has all the hallmarks of a true villain at the start, but gradually dissolves into being... quite nice. It's somewhat anticlimactic.

There have been plenty of comparisons between Clarke's debut and JK Rowlings's output. And despite Jonathan Strange's sophistication, these are apt. Both authors peddle a magic that is oddly comforting even as it raises the forces of evil. Both concoct plots of the kind that make you look up to find that hours have passed while you devoured their pages. Both create paper-thin characters, instead drawing us in through stories, endless funny asides and a jovial englishness. Both write about characters that pay lip-service to palatably liberal values, while enshrining old-fashioned structures: men wave their wands and women remain victims; only the upper classes practice magic; and we know that the hero will never die. Clarke took 10 years to write her book, something that its intricate detail reflects. In other ways, though, it's very much comfort reading, and works like a recipe rather than a spell. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell may ask few difficult questions, but it offers nearly 800 pages of childish, somehow uncomplicated pleasure.
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