September 2006

Jen Larsen

fiction

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

With her novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and now her collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke has carved out a weird little niche for herself, as precious as a shallow little grass-carpeted basin in the middle of the forest, rung by bluebells, haunted by fairies and a little bit spooky at night when there's a full moon but not too spooky because that would not be polite.

Clarke's overall sensibility, in other words, is otherworldly Victorian, somewhat prim and proper. It worked beautifully in Jonathan Strange, which, over the course of its bricklike thousands of pages, felt stately and serious, a lovely pen and ink drawing scrolled out in front of your eyes. It was a sort of fantasy Jane Austen, with a particular emphasis on the facade of the world she was creating -- an England riddled with magic and fairies. Messy emotions generally roamed under the surface, implied expertly and all the more powerful for their covert and secret loveliness. 

This sensibility is less successful in a short story form, where time and space is condensed so that each element of a piece feels magnified. Because of this, the style Clarke has adopted -- which ranges in this collection from the restrained Victorianesque polish familiar from her novel to a strange kind ye Old Renaissance Faire Englishe -- starts to feel a little too mannered, a little over-stylized, and kind gimmicky, in some cases threatening to overshadow the stories themselves.

Clarke begins the collection very self-consciously, with an introduction from a Professor of Sidhe studies who has, of course, gathered these pieces together to create a historical record of the history of magic in the British Isles. This sets the stage for the tone Clarke takes throughout the collection; if you are not willing to go along with the fiction of a scholarly introduction to Clarke's world, then it is a good bet that you will not have the patience to wade through the eight slight tales that follow, all set in the world that she created for Jonathan Strange.

It is not surprising that Clarke would not want to abandon the setting that made her book so wildly popular, but if you are not a fan -- and in fact, even if you are a fan of the book -- the world begins to feel claustrophobic. It is interesting to see how the historical world she created is so essential to the workings of each of her stories, but it also becomes exhausting, and you might wish that Clarke break out of her rut for just a moment and maybe try her hand something new. A little erotic cyberpunk. Something.

But, maybe remarkably, what it all comes down to is the fact that this is what Clarke does best, and her best is incredibly charming and often surprising. When she examines the magic of women, she is at her most interesting and thoughtful, and the results are frequently remarkable.

Among the standouts are the title story, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," in which sisters are doing it for themselves in a Victorian England where women, shockingly, are not permitted to try their hands at magic. Though the appearance of Jonathan Strange his ownself to Sherlock Holmes around the place seems a little unnecessary to the meat of the story, there is a delicately menacing undertone that is quite lovely. "Antiques and Frets" takes an historical perspective on the Queen of Scots and another look at the peculiarly interesting magic of women, and "On Lickerish Hill" is a quietly dark retelling of the Rumplestiltskin story, with a very clever narrator who wins herself free of both her cruel husband and her unfair bargain.

Despite the great abundance of style and stylistic tics, there is something about giving yourself over to Clarke's imagination that makes these stories, read together all in one go, absorbing and lovely, fun to read, so that the style becomes a part of the whole, again, and the collection, in the end, might just work.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1596912510
224 Pages