Wise Children

wise childrenWhat a joy it is to dance and sing!

This is the refrain of the exuberant, ebullient, resilient story of identical twins Dora and Nora Chance, who are music-hall girls and by-blows of the greatest Shakespearian actor of his day, Melchior Hazard. The story is narrated by the elderly Dora, and from the first sentence of the book you’re not given a chance to catch your breath: the memories of their wonderful, happy, sad, eventful life sweep you off your feet like a rushing tide, and all you can do is keep your eyes open.

The novel is so cram-jammed with plot and with characters that any attempt at a summary would be hopeless. But even such an olio of events (affairs, house fires, births and deaths, a film in Hollywood, a triple marriage, endless theatrical performances, two resurrections, and on and on) is only chaotic on the surface. Angela Carter weaves it all together with her themes: parents and children, artifice and reality, and, of course, more Shakespeare than you can shake a stick (or a music-hall leg) at.

The Shakespearian references are everywhere, but they are often slyly changed and twisted. From the title (Merchant of Venice, “It’s a wise father that knows his own child,”) to the sentence level (“Bound for oblivion, nor leave a wrack behind,”) to allusions (the title of a music-hall play Dora and Nora appear in is What?! You Will?!), Carter kept me laughing in recognition. Entire plot points revolve around Shakespeare — you may have noticed the triple marriage and the resurrections, above? I neglected to mention (attempted) poisonings, a wife-and-self murder, and a delivery to 2b or not 2b. It’s possible that Carter made reference to every single one of Shakespeare’s plays, and the masterpiece of all of them comes just a few pages from the beginning, when Dora and Nora’s godchild Tiffany pulls a full-on Ophelia’s mad scene, on television.

Now she thrusts her battered little spring posy at Tristram, retaining for herself the one daffodil, which she holds to her mouth as if it were the mouthpiece of one of those sit-up-and-beg telephones we used to have, years ago. Hello, hello? Then she holds it to her ear. Nobody at home. Then offers it to Tristram, too, with such a sad smile — a smile that changes when she looks at it again and notes that it is not, in fact, a telephone at all, to a pale giggle.

“Daffy dill, daffy dilly,” she said. And once more broke into song, but one with words this time.

“Oh my little sister Lily is a whore in Picadilly,/ And my mother is another in the Strand –”

I thought, that’s it! They’ll fade her now, for sure! But still and still and still they didn’t, not even when, now she’d got rid of her flowers, she cried out suddenly:

“Off with it! You only lent it to me! Nothing was mine, ever!”

This book explores the complicated relationships between fathers and illegitimate daughters, mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and grandchildren, god-children, and all those people we gather around us as family during our long and interesting lives. Dora’s voice is utterly candid, no-use-lying-dearie, and this gives a marvelously happy-go-lucky feel to what might have been a melodramatic book or a just plain weird one. Carter looks at all the artifice inherent to performance, from the makeup and costumes to the adoption of a persona, but she finds the innocence and joy underneath it all: the dance, the song, the sex, the animal spirits that move the people who move the show. The light that makes the glitter refract, as it were.

This is the second book I’ve read by Angela Carter (the first was The Bloody Chamber) and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting: these bursts of joy, this acknowledgment of laughter and the shape of things in the midst of the hardness of life. What a joy it is to dance and sing!

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16 Responses to Wise Children

  1. Ellie says:

    Shakespearean references?! Let me at it…

    • Jenny says:

      I’m sure I missed dozens of them. I kept catching sight of them just as they were disappearing around a corner, because the narrative is so jauntily paced.

  2. It’s years since I read this, but I remember loving it. Thank you for reminding me of so many lovely details that had slipped from my mind over time.

  3. Jeanne says:

    resurrections? (sniffs suspiciously)

    • Jenny says:

      It was, but it was completely different in tone and style from The Bloody Chamber, so I was sort of caught off guard. But in a good way.

  4. Oh I just don’t know, Proper Jenny! On paper Angela Carter seems like the perfect writer for me, and in practice I am drowned under her oceans of adjectives. Will I ever love her?

    • Jenny says:

      Well, you may have noticed from my own review that I’m not averse to an adjective or two! What have you read by her so far?

  5. This was my first Angela Carter book, and I *mostly* loved it – but discovered I have a prejudice against books which are entirely told in flashback, as it were. Don’t know why, but there it is. I’m sure I missed dozens of Shakespeare refs, but loved those I did spot – particularly that music hall title :)

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t mind the flashbacks (well, I don’t mind them anyway) because the ending came back to the beginning and pulled everything together. Wasn’t all the Shakespeare lovely, though?

  6. This one has been on my TBR for TOO LONG, obviously. It sounds amazing!

  7. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    This sounds much more enjoyable than the last one I read – The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman – which was way too magic realism for me. This sounds more like the wonderful Nights at the Circus, one of my favourite books.

    • Jenny says:

      Aha! I was hoping someone would say which of her books this was most like, so I would know which to read next. Thank you, Vicki!

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