When confronted with an eight hour flight from Italy and an exhausted reading supply, I picked up Susannah Clarke's ponderous tome of historical fiction, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I had seen it before, and had started dancing a ginga around it much like the one I'm currently doing with a stunning new binding of War & Peace that came out last year, but the bricklike heft of it and the exclusive availablity in hardcover held me back. In the Roman airport though, I saw a paperback edition for a pretty reasonable twelve or thirteen Euro, so I picked it up and dug in. It took significant effort to fully engage in the book, not because it wasn't great, because it was, but rather because I personally have some difficulty with adjusting to thinking in a whole other world (this is why I have a hard time getting enthused about science fiction). The work was well worth it - Clarke created an intricate, beautiful story rich in detail and set in 1808, where competing magicians fall in and out of each others' lives. The writing has a great older feel...kind of like Thackeray with a very light modern filter over it?
My aunt, who is a retired librarian and reader's aide, was also on the trip, and asked what I thought of Strange and Norrell. I told her much of what I've already said above, and added that oh, my freaking God, were the footnotes driving me up a wall. There are a lot of goddamn footnotes in that bastard, and the thing is, some are brief and to the point, and some are pages long (No, for real. There was one that was three pages long, in that tiny footnote text). My aunt mentioned that Clarke had gotten her start in short stories, and indeed, it seemed that as she wrote, she came up with smaller side stories that she just wanted to include, so she threw them into footnotes. They're good short stories, they're just...really long footnotes, which means you run into the Footnote Problem, that being the question of whether to stop and read them as they come, or to carry on and only read them in the moment if the narrative doesn't make sense without them. (I usually opt for the latter.) I made a mental note to check out the short stories later, and then went back to school and forgot about pretty much everything not written down on a Post It Note and kept somewhere visible.
So, imagine my surprise when one of the Book Club members from across the pond had selected the very same short story collection for this round of mailings! This is a chain letter-y kind of book club; each person selects a book that they like, and they are assigned a person they pass books along to. Each month, we mail the book we have on to our assigned people, and we get to read a whole bunch of cool books. I received Grace Adieu about a month ago and promptly lost it for about three weeks in my heap of BookMooch books I've been stocking up on for this project. You may have noticed that I've had Nabokov's Pale Fire as the Book In Progress since 'Nam...that one and this book have taken on a certain weird Bermuda Trianglar vibe. I just cannot seem to buckle down to read them. When I finally did sit down with this one, I punched it out in a day, so I suppose I should just sack up and lock myself in a room with Pale Fire (two shall enter...one shall leave).
In any case, I really enjoyed these eight short stories, and I think it's in large part due to the kinds of books that my grandmother and parents read to me when I was a kid and the similarities between Clarke's end product and my personal approach to writing. When I was younger, I got the standard fare, but my family also was in to reading stuff like The Princess and Curdie, which is a fairy tale in the style of those older, trippier, scarier fairy tales from before Disney got to them and sanitized the shit out of them. Fairies are not innately good, they're not servile to human beings, they're not your friends...they have their own society and laws, and are not to be trifled with. Clarke just completely loses herself in this world, and it makes for truly exceptional reading. She has managed to create an incredibly dense, detailed world for her characters to inhabit, and the payoff is huge. It makes it very easy to get into the time and place of her books and stay there, which as I mentioned, I frequently have trouble with. She also has a terrific grasp of the historical mode of speech that she employs. I find that a lot of writers who aim for older dialects wind up sounding very forced, and that the tone often clashes with some of the more modern thoughts and concepts in the story itself, but Clarke is so down in it that it fires on all cylinders. It's a skill not to be scoffed at, because that shit is no walk in the park.
I also love the feeling of these stories...they are so light and easy, and yet still have a solid, grounding core. Much of my creative writing begins with one moment or brief episode that I like the feel of, and then I can pull that feeling out to tell a whole story. This means writing with a lot of aesthetic notation, and a conciousness of how the story's environment works, and Clarke's stories carry a lot of the same feeling. My favorite of all of them was called "Mrs. Mabb," wherein a woman's sweetheart is...kidnapped? Spirited away? Waylaid? by a mysterious woman named Mrs. Mabb. As the woman tries to get to him, she is constantly attacked and confused by strange phenomenae, all of which have a strange connection to the natural world. I can't really explain more than that without spoiling the (excellent) ending, but the real kicker for me was the lush vibe of the story as Clarke detailed the English countryside and the natural elements of the story. The descriptions conjured such wonderful images as I read, and when I finished, I felt like I'd just gone for a walk outside in the spring.
Definitely recommended, as is Strange & Norrell if you have the time and dedication to the project. Neil Gaiman fans will also be excited to see his stamp on the work - one of the stories ("The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse") is set in Gaiman's world of Stardust, and he is a clear influence on Ms. Clarke throughout. Also of note are the stunning illustrations of Charles Vess', who of course was a Gaiman collaborator as well. His illustrations are found throughout the book, especially as fronticepieces for each story, and have this lovely art deco feel to them, with trailing banners and intricate detail. They actually remind me very strongly of W.W. Denslow's illustrations in a copy of The Wizard of Oz I had when I was a kid.