February 5, 2007

The Ladies of Grace Adieu & Other Stories

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke is, quite simply, one of the loveliest short story collections I've read recently. It's beautifully written, charming and witty and even slightly horrifying at times (Susanna Clarke's fairies are not the adorable, flowery creatures made popular in Victorian fairytales - they are sensual and viscious by turns).
The stories are also accompanied by Charles Vess' detailed illustrations and are introduced by Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies at the University of Aberdeen. I really enjoyed that - between her "Professor" and the smattering of footnotes, you really get a sense that Ms. Clarke is a woman who has waded through A Lot of academic texts.
But on to the stories themselves...

As most people know, Susanna Clarke wrote the rather massive Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in which she succesfully sustained a complicated collection of narrative threads through more than 800 pages. She did this so well that when I closed the book on the final page, I still wanted more. So I bothered several people for several days theorizing about various allusions and things that she'd left ambiguous.
The bottom line was that Susanna Clarke had seriously engaged me with her first novel, but I wasn't really sure how her style would translate to a shorter form. After all, I was still left really curious, maybe even a little antsy, after reading 800 pages - would she really be able to arc a short story well enough to be satisfying?

Short answer: Yes.

Little did I know that I'd already read four of Susanna Clarke's short stories in various anthologies and had enjoyed them enough to dog-ear them (yes, I do dog-ear pages and I know I suck for doing it). These stories - "On Lickerish Hill", the excellent "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower", "Mrs. Mabb" and "Antickes and Frets" stand alone, without reference to the imagined historicity of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. In fact, Ms. Clarke is comfortable enough with her material that her stories possess a beautiful self-contained quality, rather like the small engravings so popular in the early 1800's or a tiny piece of jewel-toned embroidery. They are lovely enough to make you want to continue to the next story, not because you're left unsatisfied with the one you've just read, but because you're curious as to what she'll do next.

This quality of self-contained beauty threads through all of the stories, even the two which directly reference Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ("The Ladies of Grace Adieu" and "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse"). Several other stories are briefly mentioned in a footnote here and there in the novel, but you really don't need to have read it to fully enjoy each tale for its own considerable merit.

To end, I was going to plug a couple of the stories that I especially enjoyed, but I don't think that I can. I honestly enjoyed them all. A lot. So, all I can say is that whether or not you've read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a treat that I would recommend. Read the stories in order or out, in one sitting or over a month but definitely take a look at this collection.


Annamaria said...

You know, when I saw over Christmas that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was translated into Hungarian and it's all over the bookstores over there (they renamed it though as 'The Rav├źn King', maybe it sells better that way) I suspected I need to give her works a chance. Now I am certain. Thank you for the recommendation!

Madeleine said...

You got it!
I had Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell sitting in my "To Read" pile for three years and never got around to it. This December, the Lemurhubby made me sit down and finally try it. It was such a fun read and terrific for a literary/history geek too. She writes about magic having played a huge role in the Battle of Waterloo and I never questioned the veracity of her alternate history until I caught myself totally buying into it. Completely seemless alternate universe. So impressive :-)