Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review of The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke

For a long time I wasn't a fan of short stories. I felt when I read them they were just sketches for novels and that the writer was either lazy or trying to make a quick buck. The stories I read as an English major were painfully boring and perhaps scarred me. Anyone who has ever suffered through an O Henry story knows my pain.

Over the years I did develop an appreciation and respect for several masters of the craft: Borges, Joyce, Chekov, Turgeniev. But in fantasy lit I generally wasn't interested. If the writer had a world to show me via fantasy, I didn't want a sample via a short story. I preferred a world painted on a vast canvas.

But since reading The Hedge Knight in Legends I revised my opinions on what a fantasy short story is capable of. The Hedge Knight, though brief, conveyed enough about the world of A Song of Ice and Fire that I was moved to read the whole series. Here was a story that hinted at worlds within worlds. Characters who were real portraits. Like a master painter who uses a few brushtrokes to convey a lot, GRRM conveyed much in telling detail and brought the story to a convincing conclusion. I read it in a Borders fueled by three café' mochas. After finishing the story I found all four volumes of the series and purchased them on the spot. I also purchased the copy of Legends and resolved to read more short stories.

I first read Susanna Clarke's Jonathon Strange and Mr Norell two years ago. It was a sheer delight. The copious notes, the Regency setting, and most of all the magic system swept me up. I remember it was one of the few books I actually limited the amount of pages I would read a day so I could savor the experience.

The creation of the Raven King was brilliant, as were the very human themes she explored in that book: courtship, love, war, madness, and figuring out what one is supposed to do with one's life.

When I discovered there wasn't a sequel, and there wasn't likely to be one in the near future I grew despondent. So despondent I considered rereading harry potter. I discovered he short story collection and dutifully bought it but it sat on my shelf for years. Until of course the Hedge Knight experience.

The world of the collection is the world of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell. That is, an imaginary northern England where magic works and the fey folk are every bit as dangerous and real as cold winter. Strange even makes an appearance, as does the raven king. There are many new characters and surprising turns and events.

Overall the book did not astound me in the way the novel did. The stories were well constructed, and there were a few surprises, but for the most part I wished she had just written another novel, or expanded on a story to make a novel.

A few of the pieces are just sketches and would not be served in a longer format: The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse, Anticks and Frets, and John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner. In these cases she is clearly imitating fable form, and keeps her narrative compressed. No long witty laugh out loud drawing room conversations or extended narratives concering the internal lives of characters, both of which I felt were the strong features of the novel. She can set up a drawing room and map out it conversational progressions and all the while still make you feel surprise at the turns, twists and revelations. But in these stories I felt she was contributing to the mythology of the world she was creating. It was a feeling much like reading the appendices of the Lord of the Rings(but written SO much better), she was filling in the corners of her world.

The longer stories, though, seemed to be incomplete or rushed. I thought Mrs Mabb, Mr Simonelli, and Tom Brightwind each could have benefitted from a longer treatment. Tom Brightwind especially seems trapped between the compressed narrative of fable, and the narrative format of a novel in which events unfold and are followed. Mr Simonelli is the strongest story in the book, filled with twists and turns similar to the novel but the main character was not described in enough detail. His history, ancestry, and how he came to be in that place and that time were all touched upon, but I had the sense there was more she could have done. His career at Cambridge, his history, his life as scholar and the other lives he touched while there. I felt that was one of the big let downs of the book. Here was a character as interesting as Strange yet at the end of the story I felt I hardly knew him.

All in all I enjoyed the book because I enjoyed the novel. But if her task was to somehow make a form that was an intersection between fable and a modern style narrative(which she does do brilliantly in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell) then I don’t think she succeeded. The longer stories that were concerned with manners and morals seemed hindered by the fable like elements she tried to interweave in them. The stories that were simply fables and had here and there a touch of the drawing room she was more successful with.

Still, I'd recommend the book for the pleasure of the company of the characters.

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