Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Book Review: "The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories"

If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke's acclaimed first novel, I suspect you'll also enjoy her new collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. In fact, I'd venture a guess that most of those who didn't like Jonathan Strange for its physical and/or mental heft will even like Ladies, since it doesn't require nearly the commitment. I, for one, was completely taken by Clarke's spectacular style in Jonathan Strange, and she doesn't fail to disappoint in these eight stories (all but the last of which were actually published previously) either.

Whether the story is a retelling of a classic fairy tale ("On Lickerish Hill" is a derivation of the Rumpelstiltskin legend), a derivation from other authors' creations ("The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is set in the village of Wall as created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess in Stardust) or a tale featuring her own characters (Jonathan Strange in the title story, the Raven King in "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner"), Clarke has managed to pull it off. I'm hard pressed to pick which of the octet I liked the best - together they hang quite nicely. I think "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" may take the cake though (I enjoyed the diaristic style as well as the suspense).

The faux-footnotes that so pleased me about Jonathan Strange make reappearances here courtesy of Clarke's useful foil Professor James Sutherland of the University of Aberdeen). Charles Vess' illustrations are marvelous (the sketch on page 1 being my particular favorite), and the overall design of the book with its somewhat gaudily stamped cover is reminiscent of a book from the early part of the last century. This design is marred only by the unfortunate glossy paper label stuck to the rear board, which I could have done without.

With Jonathan Strange I immersed myself for a week or more in the fantastic parallel universe Clarke created so delightfully. While these stories didn't take nearly as long to read, they still allowed me to lose myself within - what everyone wants from a fairy tale!

I shall be awaiting Clarke's new creation with some impatience now.