Monday, January 7, 2008

Susanna Clarke - The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories (2006)

Since leaving my teens, I've never been a fan of the updated fairy tale, perhaps because it tends either to simply (re)include heavy sexuality, or else put a heavily obvious ideological spin on the proceedings. And (in contrast to a former self) I rarely read short stories these days. But Susanna Clarke's fantastic (in all senses), monumental novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an epic story of faeries and magicians set in a Victorian alterna-history in which magic took the place of the Industrial Revolution (this sells the work extremely short, and I can't recommend it highly enough), was a feast - and so I gave her new work, a collection of short stories based on magical and, in particular, faerie themes, a go.

As a complete Victoriana-phile, I'm always looking for modern fiction set in the Victorian period which actually manages to pull off the period detail, society, and language, rather than Mills & Boon cod-Victoriana, or an unfunny, over-the-top send-up of Victorian manners. It's a difficult quality to find, but Clarke has it in spades (some others I'd recommend in this vein, though without the fantasy aspect, are D. J. Taylor's Kept and Wesley Stace's Misfortune). The best of the stories here are set in the world of Strange and Norrell (and some familiar characters recur), that is, the late-Regency to Victorian period in Britain, in which a familiar opposition takes place between the magic of the 'head' (modern, rational, booklearning, technological prowess) and of the 'heart' (ancient, emotional, connected to gods and faeries, natural, uncontrollable). The theme of the cunning mortal outwitting the faerie is also a recurring plot.

The most successful stories are those which most inhabit the world of Strange and Norrell, while the least are those which simply retell old fairy tales. Overall, in opposition to JS&MN, plot is not the point here: even the more elaborate stories are fairy tale retellings, cast into a different world, or else based heavily on traditional fairytale narratives. But, unusually for me, I didn't find this a problem - all the stories held my interest, and I devoured the whole (modest) book in one sitting.

There are some other interesting points to the work; the one 'retelling' aspect which comes up fresh, original and shiny is a fascinating piece which compares the situation of Jews and Faeries in the society created by Clarke. There's also a story set in the village of Wall (where the human and fairy realms meet), created by Neil Gaiman in Stardust (having said which, I've never liked anything of Gaiman's except for his original Sandman series).

This work threw a lot of things at me which I don't usually have much time for (these days, at least): short stories, 'updated' fairytales and myths, and modern genre fantasy (Clarke thanks Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, among others) - but I devoured it. I wouldn't lay money, however, on whether it would universally find the same reception amongst those who haven't read JS&MN. The work, to me, was a tease, a little taster of what's been happening in that world since and contemporaneously with the original novel - I can only hope Clarke doesn't keep me waiting too long for something more significant to sink my teeth into.

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