Friday, May 18, 2007

Ladies of Grace Adieu

Title: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

Author: Susanna Clarke

Copyright: 2006, Bloomsbury US, New York. (ISBN: 1596912510)

Length: 235 pages

Genre: Fantasy

Summary: This is a collection of eight short stories by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. As might be expected by those who have read that lengthy novel, the stories are a curious mix of dark magic and light froth, alternately offering stories that remind one of robust Guiness stout and the best dry champagne. There is the same mix of historical figures with a history that never was with the same ability to disconcert. Faery folk are recognized as a dangerous and perhaps duplicitous population.

The story from which the anthology takes its name is an amplification of a minor incident in the Jonathan Strange narrative, but is itself fairly memorable as a literary fairy tale on the basis of the final twist. According to this interview, the tale of Ladies of Grace Adieu was intended as a way of encouraging publisher interest in the final novel. On Lickerish Hill is the story I wrote about earlier this month. The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse, the title character of which is also a figure encountered in Jonathan Strange, appears in the collection; the full text of that story has been on the Strange website for some time. (Each of these tales has been previously published elsewhere.) Antickes and Frets appeared in the New York Times as a Halloween story and features the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, in a rather macabre way. Mrs. Mabb tells of a jilted female who insists on eliciting the truth of her lover's disappearance. I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower although the ending was somewhat mystifiying. Conversely, I did not find the story of the Tom Brightwind to be very interesting, although it uses the same approach to story telling as Strange in terms of voluminous footnotes. The final story of John Uskglass and the Umbrian Charcoal Burner is actually very, very funny.

Brief Quote:

Mr. Hawkins said nothing; the Hawkins' domestic affairs were arranged upon the principle that Fanny supplied the talk and he the silence.

Now don't you just love that line?

Also Relevant: We had read and discussed these tales at Didi's this past week. Given that the form was short stories, there wasn't as much discussion as perhaps normal with regard to the narrative. We all found the stories enjoyable but not necessarily outstanding or something we'd remember vividly twelve months hence.

What we did spend some time on were the illustrations by Charles Vess, an award-winning graphic artist (his blog is here). I believe it was Pat C. who noted that, based on the illustrations, the artist had a particular difficulty with rendering feet. In almost every instance, the feet were hidden by other objects, but when these particular extremities were shown, they didn't look right. They didn't look as if they were bearing any weight. Didi conversely was quite taken with his backgrounds; for example, the tapestry behind Mary, Queen of Scots, in Antickes and Frets. She's posted her thoughts. We assumed Mr. Vess was responsible as well for the cover art of the book which none of us cared much for.

(Pat P.'s beloved green suitcase with miraculous pockets was the other lengthy discussion that evening, but the specifics of that have no place here. Suffice it to say that she was forced to replace the incredibly useful green suitcase with inferior luggage in cobalt blue. Baggage handlers have no idea of the heart burnings that their work may cause.)

All in all, I think this volume of short stories would be the ideal for your 2007 beach reading. Nothing too challenging, but enjoyable and unconventional ideas.