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November 09, 2005

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I just finished reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an amazing novel about the "return of English magic" during the Napoleonic era. It resembles books in which the author conducts research into some occult or supernatural beliefs and then pretends that these beliefs are true. That mix of historical research and make-believe is evident in Umberto Eco's novels, in the Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and (to name two less successful examples) in my Something to Hide and Tongues of Fire. However, Clarke's book is different. As far as I can tell, the scholarly research that appears to underlie the novel is entirely invented. Clarke has made up the historical tradition that she seems to have rediscovered. That tradition is so richly imagined and so multidimensional that it seems real.

At the same time, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a compelling, suspenseful story. Despite being about magic, it's for grownups. Adult relationships (especially a marriage and the competition between two professionals) are at the heart of the book. I read it jealously, since I would rather have written it than done any other kind of work. But my jealousy--which also happens to be a big theme in the book--did not prevent me from enjoying it thoroughly.

Posted by peterlevine at November 9, 2005 02:59 PM

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