“The Ladies of Grace Adieu” is, of course, an amazing collection of short stories. Each of the stories is funny, eerie, beautiful, and wonderful. Susanna Clarke is practically perfect in every way, etc.
But what struck me while reading the stories was the odd sense that I had, somehow, read them before. I absolutely had not read a single one before, of course. But in each story, there would be something as familiar to me as “once upon a time.”
I think Clarke achieves this original non-originality through a perfect balance of three things. First, the setting is familiar to anyone who’s read or watched period pieces (which is a surprisingly large number of people). Rural Regency English society, concerned as it was with marriage, appearance, and money, is portrayed perfectly.
Secondly, the writing style. As has been said before “it’s like if Jane Austen wrote fantasy.” But while Jane’s gentle humor and sharp observations were confined to the human world, Clarke has stretched out further. Each story tells of a moment when the Fairy world clashed with the human world, and each character has their own way of reaching across the divide between the races. All of this told with a light, familiar-sounding voice.
Thirdly, there’s the folklore. This is something not everyone will get, because not everyone is silly enough to consider three-hundred-year-old tomes on rural Welsh folklore to be top-notch bedtime reading. Yes, I’m weird, moving on. Many of these stories have a solid base in a real superstition, or a series of similar stories that were told regualrly centuries back but have since fallen out of the usual run of fairy tales. A midwife, taken to a strange and beautiful mansion in the dead of night to deliver a fairy child, then returned home with riches: it’s not a usual tale anymore. But it plays a key role in one of the stories. So do fairy-tale-like scenes like a bridge being built in a single day and night, a woman dancing until her feet are bloody, and a garden filled with fairies disguised as insects.
Together, the effect is sublime.