I’m not a great re-reader of books. I always have an enormous pile of new ones waiting by my bed, and never the time to open them. But, I make an exception with Angela Carter whose books contain some magic spell that never fails to draw me in.
Carter’s work is often hailed as being post-modern, and post-feminist, with elements of magical realism. She certainly employs the themes of well-known fairy tales and myths which anchors her work in a certain way. But then, she takes that starting point and leads her readers to new realms, or ~ as the writer said herself ~ she pours new wine into old bottles, ending up with a heady, explosive brew of iconic and gruesome feminist tales.
Perhaps the best example of this gothic form of Carter's work can be found in her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber.
I love that book, though I must admit that for several years my favourite would have been her novel, Nights at the Circus. I still adore this glorious romp through the life of Sophie Fevvers, a Cockney virgin supposedly being hatched from an egg and growing wings; the blessing of which she then employs as a circus trapeze performer.
But, these days I would choose Wise Children, sadly destined to be her last novel. It shows a writer in her prime, taking her favourite classic themes ~ including some works of Shakespeare ~ and reworking the whole into a book so life-affirming and original I’ve decided to read it once a year to remind myself how great it is, and also to remember that age is not necessarily a bar to love and joy in life ~ and to quote the septuagenarium narrator who goes by the name of Dora Chance: “What a joy it is to dance and sing.”
The Dolly Sisters
The real identical twin sisters and actors who surely influenced Angela Carter's work.
The novel begins on the morning of the 75th birthday of the identical twin sisters known as Dora and Nora Chance. The twins (so Dora informs us) have always been on the ‘wrong side of the tracks, both living in South London, and being illegitimate, growing up to work as hoofers in the dying days of the music halls, and also with minor acting roles in a not particularly successful film made of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
By chance ~ and there is a lot of chance throughout the pages of this book ~ it is also the hundredth birthday of their father Melchior Hazard, and his twin brother, Peregrine. Peregrine is the perfect uncle, enormous in size and character and someone who Dora at one point describes as ‘Less of a man, more of a travelling carnival.”
However, their father Melchior, a pillar of the Shakespearian theatre who bears more than a small resemblance to the real actor, Laurence Olivier, barely even acknowledges the ‘girls’ as being related to him at all, leading to many resentments between themselves and his legitimate kin.
But the Chance sisters both have big hearts, and their generous spirits are clear to see in the way they care for ‘wheelchair’, their nickname for Melchior’s ex-wife, who was crippled when falling down some stairs in a most suspicious episode.
Throughout the book Dora Chance relates many lurid and often hilarious events that occurred in her early life and times, leading up to the present day when she and Nora (and Wheelchair, who’s disguised with a veil across her head) set off to attend a party held in their father’s honour. This affair forms the perfect climax to gather all those characters who have played a part in the sister’s lives, leading to a finale that - unless you have the hardest heart - will draw a tear of happiness.
If this review tempts anyone who didn't know the book before to go and read Wise Children, I'd love to hear what you think of it. For me, this novel continues to be a sheer delight from start to end.