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Classic review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

A delightful, intelligent fantasy that has been called "Harry Potter for adults."

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Aug. 31, 2004.] The prospect of having to read an 800-page novel billed as "Harry Potter for adults" was enough to make this weary book critic pine for an invisibility cloak. But for those of you who, like me, can't endure another charmless opening at the Dursleys', take heart: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is no Harry Potter knockoff.

It's altogether original - far closer to Dickens than Rowling. In fact, I'm so in love with Susanna Clarke's debut novel that I must have been beaned on the head with a golden snitch. Its appearance on the Booker longlist last week adds a nice flourish to the launch.

Clarke has concocted a thoroughly enchanting story of the early 19th century when Gilbert Norrell tried to bring "practical magic" back to England. The book looks like one of those omnivorous tomes that couldn't bare to drop a single passage, but it reads like a distillation of some far larger body of work, a mere sliver of what it could have included.

And the elaborate structure of footnotes is just as enjoyable as the main story. In Clarke's wry, slightly arch tone, they provide faux bibliographic references and fill out England's magical history with myths and legends of the Raven King, who once ruled both human and faerie kingdoms.

The scene opens in 1806, when the theoretical magicians of York are content to study magic rather than do it. "Our time is past," they concede. In fact, "they did not want to see magic done; they only wished to read about it in books."


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