British author Susanna Clarke gave us one of the best fantasy novels ever with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in 2004. It was a stilistic triumph, experimental and efficient, in spite of it’s clocking in at over 700 pages. How do you follow that? The answer is: with The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006), a collection of short stories that take place in the same ”world” as Jonathan Strange… ”Follow” is a bit of a stretch since all of the stories but one, the concluding ”John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal burner”, were published prior to Jonathan Strange… In that sense The Ladies of Grace Adieu is something of a testing ground for Clarkes style and vision. I don’t find the short stories as engrossing as the full novel, which isn’t very surprising, but everything is there: the experiment, the pastiche of 19th century writers like Jane Austen, the blurring of the border between truth and fiction, and of course the magical theme. We encounter witches who rid the world of vulgar young men, a certain Duke of Wellington in a fix with his horse and the greatest magician ever, John Uskglass, the Raven King, this time meeting his match in cunning. Jonathan Strange and his wife returns in supporting roles, adding to the recognition and setting. Magic permeates the stories, without ever going for effect. It’s sober magic, delivered with finesse and grandeur, discarding the crash! and boom! of simple entertainment. Which is not to say that Susanna Clarke isn’t entertaining, she is, highly so, but quite a lot of the joy is derived from the stilistic level at which she delivers. She manages, quite like Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren, to make me believe that her stories are true, that her characters are real, partly by mixing historical people with imaginary ones, but mainly through her incredible imagination. The volume is constructed so that the stories appear to be ”collected” by a fictional editor, who also provides an introduction. Clarke makes the other-worldly worldly. It’s simply a pleasure to read her stories.
The language, thus, is very good, far above most fantastic literature, and the vision is still as strong. The only downside is that as soon as you’ve landed in a story it’s over. On the other hand, following a successful novel with a short story collection is in itself experimental; most fantasy writers would simply have written an identical sequel and banked the winnings – a conventional, boring and highly annoying habit of the genre. But Susanna Clarke just does what she does, seemingly without a care in the world for what people expect of her. Which, I have to admit, is precisely what I have come to expect of her. Some writers manage to build that kind of expectation with just one book, while others don’t come close even after several.
Though not as good as Jonathan Strange…, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is another example of the greatness of this writer. She has already revived a pre-maturely deceased genre and I hope she will do it again. No pressure, right?