Dark and dangerous fairies on the wing
If Susanna Clarke's new story collection, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," had been sprung upon the reading public before the publication of her breakout 2004 novel, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," I'm guessing ...
Seattle Times book editor
"The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories"
by Susanna Clarke,
illustrated by Charles Vess
Bloomsbury, 235 pp., $23.95
If Susanna Clarke's new story collection, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," had been sprung upon the reading public before the publication of her breakout 2004 novel, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," I'm guessing it would have sunk beneath the waves of books published each year, at best slotted on the "fantasy" shelf amongst the Arthurian legends and alternative histories. Witty, erudite, creepy fairy tales for grown-ups? I beg your pardon?
Thankfully, "Strange & Norrell" came first. Clarke's novel of two 19th-century magicians who subdue their warring egos and combine forces to save England was a publishing sensation — it just came out in a mass-market version suitable for airports, which is saying something for an 800-page book with hundreds of sometimes-pages-long footnotes.
So, the ground has been prepared for "The Ladies of Grace Adieu." If you read Clarke's first book, you will take to "Ladies" like jam to warm scones. If you haven't, you may need to make some mental adjustments.
Clarke's world is 19th-century England and its denizens — lords and ladies, village girls and soldiers, chamber maids and scullerymen. But they're mocked, confounded and tormented by fairies and other fantastic creatures, with the occasional magician called upon to intervene. The author's wry, knowing narrative voice owes debts to Jane Austen, Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the delightful illustrations by Charles Vess borrow from 19th-century fairy-tale collections, art deco and Edward Gorey.
The fairies in "Ladies" are not the innocent creatures of flower-fairydom — their closest kin are the heedless fairies of folklore, jokers who trap humans in webs of tragedy and the fickleness of fate. At their most benign, they possess a combination of "unreliable charm, exhausting capriciousness and absolute tyranny." At worst, they are dark, dangerous and sadistic.
The slightest of the eight stories in "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" are the first two, the title story and "On Lickerish Hill," which owes too much to the fairy tale it's modeled on. "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is more a vignette than a story.
The satisfiers in this collection are "Mrs. Mabb," about the struggle between a village girl and a fairy woman over the soul of a soldier; "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby," the story of a clever, feckless fairy and the price he exacts for doing a favor; and "Antickes and Frets," which interweaves scenes from the life of Mary Queen of Scots with a tale of bewitchment and embroidery.
"Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" is the most authentically creepy story here. A tale of a fairy who kidnaps young women and consigns them to the direst conditions imaginable, it wanders into Stephen King territory, though without the overt gore. "John Uskglass and the Cambrian Charcoal Burner" is a perfectly constructed fable with a witty, judicious outcome.
Clarke took 10 years to write "Strange & Norrell" and has said she is working on a sequel. These stories are a bridge to that next novel, which her fans can only hope she will conjure up sooner than later.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the Seattle Times book editor and a director of the National Book Critics Circle.