What kind of magic can make a nearly 800-page novel seem too short? Whatever it is, debut author Susanna Clarke is possessed by it, and her astonished readers will surely hope she never recovers. Her epic history of an alternative, magical England is so beautifully realized that not one of the many enchantments Clarke chronicles in the book could ever be as potent or as quickening as her own magnificent narrative.
It is 1806, and Gilbert Norrell is the only true magician in England. He sets out to restore the practice of magic to a nation that has not seen it for more than 300 years. But there is an odd and fateful twist to Norrell's character: he is as scholarly and insufferably pedantic as he is gifted. In short, Norrell is the most boring and unmagical person imaginable. This is Clarke's masterstroke, the necessary touch of ordinary candleshine in the midst of all the uncanny fairy light she dispenses.
Enter Jonathan Strange, the intuitive magician the natural who can improvise in a flash what Norrell has gleaned from long study. Strange becomes Norrell's pupil, but soon the tension between their styles mounts to a breaking point. The two men realize that they have a fundamental disagreement about how to approach the mysterious and terrifying sources of English magic, in the face of which even Albus Dumbledore might find himself unnerved.
Just as Norrell and Strange apprentice themselves to a Golden Age of medieval magicians, Clarke tethers her craft to the great 19th-century English masters of the novel, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The book offers not only an Austen-like inquiry into the fine human line between ridiculous flaw and serious consequence, but also a Dickensian flow of language in which a comical surplus of detail rings at last with certain and inevitable significance. This elixir of literary influences gives the story its delightful texture. But there is so much more to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—an energy buckling and straining at the edges of the book in sheer imaginative overflow, just as the realm of Faerie buckles and strains beyond the edges of England's green fields, beckoning us down the overgrown path and through the dark wood. Thus it happens that a novel of nearly 800 pages seems far too short. This is the strangest and, as we gratefully come to understand, the norrellest magic a book lover could wish for.
Michael Alec Rose is an associate professor at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music.