Barnhill’s tales will capture the hearts of adults but will also help introduce younger readers to the depth of reading for adults.
Kelly Barnhill, whose previous book was the Newbery Medal-winning The Girl Who Drank the Moon, has somehow managed the perfect follow-up to a bestselling children’s book: she’s written Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, a real, magical book that contains adult themes but that remains accessible for bolder young readers. Some of the themes, including sex, betrayal, war—and, most abundantly, death—mean that parents would have to perhaps supervise which stories their children should engage with, but nothing is so luridly depicted as to make it inappropriate for precocious teens. Like the best work of popular, chameleonic fantasist Neil Gaiman, Barnhill’s tales will capture the hearts of adults but will also help introduce younger readers to the depth of reading for adults.
This book is somewhat reminiscent, though in no way derivative, of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell author Susanna Clarke’s horribly underrated 2006 collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Just as Clarke’s collection contained her World Fantasy Award-nominated story, “Mr. Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower,” Dreadful Young Ladies is anchored by Barnhill’s splendid World Fantasy Award-winning novella “The Unlicensed Magician.” Like The Ladies of Grace Adieu, some of Barnhill’s stories feature repeated characters and settings, yet each also approaches a unique magical scenario.
Each of Barnhill’s chosen scenarios are effective and memorable. The best include a woman who finds love with an unlikely beast (“Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch”), a disconcertingly heartfelt (and hysterically funny) kind-of-same-sex love story between an insect and an astronomer (“The Insect and the Astronomer: A Love Story”), the tale of a secretly magical little girl who takes on a man who is drunk on power (“The Unlicensed Magician”) and a correspondence between a soldier and his wife that recalls Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine series yet does so through a darker, queerer lens (“Open the Door and the Light Pours Through”).
There is no fluff here, with each of the book’s nine pieces warranting its place in the collection. In fact, though it is by no means a short collection, more content would have been nice. Writers and publishers have mostly been focused on slim, elegant collections. With a writer of Barnhill’s ingenuity and propensity for convention-breaking devices, more stories would have not only shown off the author’s skills but wrapped the reader even further into her world.
And what a world it is. Though the primary link between the stories is the sometimes shadowy, sometimes stark presence of death, that doesn’t rob Dreadful Young Ladies of buoyancy or charm. In fact, some of the funnier moments are the darker ones. The book’s second story, “Open the Door and the Light Pours Through,” is outwardly tragic, following an exchange of letters between a soldier whose wife has moved in with his family for safety during the war. Each exchange is told through the actual letter (labeled “What he wrote” or “What she wrote”) and then through what wasn’t included in the letter (labeled “What he did not” and “What she did not”). This genius set-up allows for somber reveals (most notably that the woman, Angela, is dead) it also tells sweet and funny details about their lives (he’s sleeping with American soldiers while she’s away; she can’t decipher between whether her mother-in-law hates her or is ignoring her because she’s dead). These tales balance supernatural humor (and often, romance) with the weight that death puts upon the shoulders of the citizens and communities within Barnhill’s world, all told with a voice that stands out as both unique and accessible, magical and believable all at once.