2.23.2010

Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories, by Susanna Clarke

"Above all remember this: that magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head and everything which is done should be done from love or joy or righteous anger."

I have read so many short stories in the last month that I am beginning to have trouble distinguishing between them. Especially when almost all of them have been about magic. That's terrible. That's why I love my novels. Well, that's not the only reason, but it's a reason. Not that short stories are bad. I don't mean that at all. Especially not about Susanna Clarke's collection within The Ladies of Grace Adieu. 

I can't truly recommend the collection unless you've read Clarke's freshman novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell which informs much of the history. It also informs her voice. I think it might be difficult for strangers to Clarke's writing to grasp her tone. Or maybe that's just me. Also, minimal (MINIMAL) knowledge of Stardust (even the film) is helpful in one of the stories. It's difficult to define Clarke's writing because it's so very pastiche. I mean the style and wording and general characterization is at once Austen, Dickens and Byron. Usually, pastiche bothers me. And I think when I first started Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell I was irked but only so far as the first few chapters at which point I was swept up in the story.

As I said before, these stories are about magic. Like Ursula LeGuin, everything is in Susanna Clarke's own world. She only has to rely really on her own mysticism, the lore of her creation--her alternate history. Though I should point out that they are still based on common myths in many cases. The title character of "Mrs. Mabb" is derived from the fairy Queen (Mab) whom Mercutio discusses in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet. "On Lickerish Hill" is "Rumpelstiltskin" of Grimm Brothers fame. "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is related to the mythology of weaving. Going back to the Grimm brothers for a moment, I recall a quote from Jacob Grimm that I heard once (and promptly looked up to make sure I had it right): "If, while riding a horse overland, a man should come upon a woman spinning, then that is a very bad sign; he should turn around and take another way"; something perhaps that The Duke of Wellington should have kept in mind (haha).

My favorites, though, were her two stories that featured strong antagonistic male faerie characters. I know how hard it is to grasp that sentence with a straight face but I totally mean it. In her novel, there's a character who remains unnamed. He is a faerie and he is mostly referred to as the "gentleman with the thistle-down hair." And he's an amazing character - a fantastic antagonist, and the perfect idea of what faeries should be according to Clarke's world. Both "Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower" and "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby" contain very similar characters with a brilliant amount of beauty, smarts, pride and covetousness to put Tinker Bell to shame.

It's a nice grouping of stories, well-told and very well-arranged, and it's a quick read. Especially after the monster that is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. That behemoth is 1006 pages in paperback...

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