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!