Monday, April 25, 2011

Trickery and lies

This little collection of short stories is from Susanna Clarke, author of the excellent and best-selling Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I love books that mimic and subvert literary conventions, and Jonathan Strange, an alternative history of England, was full of sly footnotes, references to other (imaginary) works, and an alternately tongue-in-cheek and utterly deadpan send-up of both the form and content of English writing. Clarke's England is a wild, fluid world, but she anchored her writing in the unflappable persona of Jonathan Strange, England's (second) greatest magician, a man of eminent practicality. Strange and his equally impeturbable wife Arabella make an appearance in one of the stories here, as does John Uskglass, the Fairy King.

Clarke's fairies are not the tiny, spritely beings of the Cottingley Fairies. Clarke's fairies are witty, charming, amoral, and frequently sadistic psychopaths. The book opens with the titular ladies of Grace Adieu, three proper, reserved Englishwomen who take drastic means to dispatch a threat to their idyllic existence. "Mrs. Mabb" and "Thomas Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower" show Clarke's fairies at their cheerful, deceptive worst. In "Thomas Simonelli," a particularly vicious fairy torments a small English village, and the description of his horrific retinue and decaying castle is particularly disturbing. John Uskglass does get his comeuppance from a humble peasant in the funny "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner."

The book itself is lovely, with a soft gray-and-pink embossed cover and delicate, Aubrey Beardsley-esque illustrations. Although the stories are light  confections compared to the dense, multi-layered Jonathan Strange, Clarke aptly displays her skill at simultaneously imitating and skewering literary conceits.

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