I Do Believe in Faeries!
Faerie is never as far away as you think. Sometimes you find you have crossed an invisible line and must cope, as best you can, with petulant princesses, vengeful owls, ladies who pass their time embroidering terrible fates, or with endless paths in deep dark woods and houses that never appear the same way twice.
—Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu
What's the point of inventing an ornate fictional universe if you're going to dispose of it after a single novel? It's like buying an ornate wedding dress—except then, you can always hope for a divorce. This was the conundrum faced by Susanna Clarke after she published her 2004 tour de force Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that posited an engrossing alternative history of early 19th-century England where magic is not only quite real but has a dramatic effect on historical events like the Napoleonic Wars. Clarke lavished care in constructing this world, with its rival "theoretical" and "practical" magicians (those who study as opposed to those who practice magic). The text is verily peppered with chatty scholarly footnotes hinting at a vast magical tradition. Even after the novel's 800-odd pages, it seemed a shame to let it go.
In The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a stopgap collection of short stories set in Jonathan Strange's world (a sequel is supposedly in the works, as is a film adaptation), Clarke makes a return journey to that land. And along the way, she exploits her gift for the creation of tiny fictional packets of dread, one she honed during the years she spent writing episodic tales for Neil Gaiman's masterful Sandman graphic novel series. As in Gaiman's world, Clarke's conceit is that a parallel realm of dark beings with whimsical and oft-malevolent tastes exists right next door to our own, and the scrim between the two is hardly airtight.
The book starts with an introduction by a purported professor of "Sidhe Studies" ("Sidhe" being another word for "Faerie"). But right after this fillip of postmodern fakery, Clarke gets into the meat of things with the title story. Strange himself, the arrogant, ladder-climbing practical magician from the novel, appears here on a family visit to a distant village where he runs up against a trio of mysterious women who may well prove more powerful than he. In the best of fairy tales, setting is all, and in this tale—with the "vast and gloomy" old manor of Winter's Realm filled with haunting visions and shifting corridors—it bubbles over the brim. The book dunks its hapless humans—a luckless and foolhardy bunch—in this strange brew, again and again. What keeps Clarke's tales from seeming like mere gothic gloom is her Grimmsian sense of schadenfreude.
"Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" is a case in point, being the story of an astoundingly arrogant Oxford clergyman who is tricked by rivals into accepting a remote sinecure. There, he finds himself at the whims of a fiendish Faerie. Much lighter in tone is the joshing, discursive, and footnote-choked "Tom Brightwind," which takes a 17th-century Jewish doctor and an impulsive Faerie lord, and makes them argumentative best friends. Pushing the concept further, Clarke drops this odd couple into a riverside village that is obsessed with the idea of a bridge, yet finds itself strangely unable to build one.
In Clarke's world, humans are a bumbling and cruel lot, though never more so than the Faeries who capriciously torment them. This is not a book that allows its subjects the arrogance of thinking they are the worst things that creation has to offer.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu Bloomsbury
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