THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU
And Other Stories
By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury. 235 pp. $23.95
Spare a thought for the poor publisher. After taking a chance with a left-field entry in Susanna Clarke's door-stopping debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, they found themselves with a huge hit on their hands. The novel was ecstatically reviewed, garnered some important genre awards and sold in several languages.
With all that goodwill and high profile, the only thing the publisher has to worry about is the follow-up, and while they wait for that next book, there's the scramble to publish, well, pretty much anything by the author to capitalize on what has gone before. And that's the problem with The Ladies of Grace Adieu .
Strange & Norrell was located squarely in the fantasy genre but was celebrated for its literary touch and its filigree attention to detail. A gigantic pastiche of 18th-century prose and sensibility, it was like a beautiful, long, scholarly essay on the supernatural and the world of faerie. Shorn of that density, however, the stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu struggle to weave the same magic. Containing eight short stories previously published between 1996 and 2004, the collection effectively amounts to a pooling of practice pieces, exercises for Strange & Norrell . Granted, they are very clever exercises, mostly offered again as careful restorations of late 18th- and early 19th-century compositions. But without the scope and the escapist hermetical seal of Strange & Norrell, the stories become suddenly exposed as light-as-a-feather whimsies.
They're familiar fairy tales or dovetailed traditional yarns touched up for the purposes of elegant retelling. There is a take on Rumpelstiltskin in "On Lickerish Hill" and a reprise of the time dilations of fairyland in "Mrs Mabb." Needlework pictures come to life in another slightly derivative tale called "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse." Two more stories venture further back in the historical timeline, with Tudor and vaguely medieval settings. And although the title story anticipates the novel and indeed introduces the characters of Strange and Norrell, as a whole the collection tends to line up the usual suspects and the usual furniture, too, of fairyland.
The prose, though, is consistently flawless and beautiful. Reading Clarke is like inspecting some wonderful antiquated craft, such as marquetry or fine hand embroidery. It's just that there are yards and yards and yards of the stuff, and at the back of your admiration for it all is a question about how, really, anyone can find the time.
Because there is more at stake here, after all. Fairy tales, and the exploration of fairy tales, have been the subject of some extraordinary and enlightening research in the past few decades. On a critical level, one thinks of Marina Warner's astonishing excavations, and in the fictional arena lies the superb anthologizing work of editors and writers such as Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, who have done so much to remodel the fairy tale and reactivate its original dark forms.
But the motive in The Ladies of Grace Adieu (and perhaps in Strange & Norrell , too) seems to be to push the djinn back in the bottle and cork it with period prose. These stories are safe, quirky and unthreatening, and the only time you are likely to stumble across the word "sex" in them is with reference to gender. You may find a woman's elegant white neck admired, but you'll be hard pressed to follow the gaze. The characters are emotionally disengaged. There is a kind of darkness, but there is no shadow. Clarke's writing displays a sense of cold virtuosity and a feeling of magic misdirected, of great cleverness without heft.
Whether it takes 10 months or 10 years to produce her next full-length work, Susanna Clarke is a better writer than this showcase would have you believe. Devotees and completist fans of Strange and Norrell will want to get their hands on this book, but the rest will probably want to wait. ·
Graham Joyce's most recent novel is "The Limits of Enchantment."