Twins. Theatre. Shakespeare. Eccentrics. There was never really any chance that I wouldn’t like Wise Children (1991) by Angela Carter, was there?
Everything kicks off with 75 year old twins Dora and Nora Chance (with Dora as our narrator) getting an invitation to their father’s 100th birthday party. Only he (Melchior) has always denied his parentage, instead claiming that his twin brother Peregrine is their father. They’re understandably a bit miffed by this, but nothing keeps them down for long. They really are eternal optimists – and delightfully over the top. They prepare for going out…
Our fingernails match our toenails match our lipstick match our rouge. Revlon, Fire and Ice. The habit of applying warpaint outlasts the battle; haven’t had a man for yonks but still we slap it on. Nobody could say the Chance girls were going gently into that good night.
That’s a pretty good example of the tone of the novel, actually. It’s the heightened, slangy voice of Dora, a little coarse but endlessly cheery heroine, along with a good dose of literary references (but the sort that even someone with my rather fleeting familiarity with poetry will get.) (Yes, I have studied English literature for eight years now – argh! – but I’ve always avoided poetry wherever possible.)
It took me about half the novel before I realised the significance of the title, but I’ll save you some time – it is a wise child that knows his own father, as the proverb goes. Oh, and if you’ve got the edition pictured (and probably others) then there’s a Dramatis Personae at the back – I didn’t find that until the end, but it would have been VERY useful, as the family is complicated beyond measure. Heaps of twins, heaps of multiple marriages, and all manner of possible and probable illicit parentages. All very Shakespearean – which, of course, is precisely the point. I learnt, in Susannah Clapp’s A Postcard From Angela Carter (which I’ll be writing about soon – maybe tomorrow?) that she intended to get in references to every one of Shakespeare’s plays, but missed out Titus Andronicus. I wish I’d known that before I started – I’d have had my checklist! Some are more obvious than others (they film A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance) but some are fun to try and spot (is the mysterious resurrection of a character presumed dead a reference to A Winter’s Tale?)
A little while ago I mentioned my literary bête noire, of novels starting in ‘present day’ and then going back to the beginning. I would probably have loved Wise Children more if Carter had chosen a different narrative structure, but that is what happens here. We reverse back to Dora and Nora’s youth, their early activities in theatre and film, and their various beaus. Not to mention the increasingly complex family. Melchior’s various wives make for fun reading. Then there is Nora’s boyfriend whom Dora rather likes, so they swap perfumes (the only way they can be told apart, apparently) and Dora has her wicked way with him… and there is a fire. Everything is gloriously over the top. So much happens, to so many people, that it is a little dizzying in a short novel, and impossible to recount in detail. But that is what I loved most about Wise Children – it is mad. Dora Chance is wonderful – particularly in old age (which is why I wished we’d spent more time there, and less on the past) and the whole novel is wonderfully exuberant – mostly because of the inexhaustibly optimistic voice of Dora, and her turns of phrase, her cheekiness, and her ability to laugh at everything life throws at her. And Carter is obviously having a whale of a time – it must be an author’s dream to be able to use the most excessive and absurd images all the time – par example:
Flash! A passing paparazzo took a picture of an old lady who looked like St Pancras Station, monumental, grimy, full of Gothic detail
– and to concoct the most extraordinary plots and interrelations, while still able to point over her shoulder and say “Well, it’s no more zany than Shakespeare.”
It’s such a fun book, and a good introduction to Angela Carter for me. It was her last novel, and I have plenty more to explore now – maybe I’ll even work my way backwards? But my second dip into Carter territory was, as mentioned, the book Susannah Clapp wrote about her postcards – more on that coming up shortly!
Others who got Stuck in this Book:
“Angela Carter’s last novel is an over-exuberant bear hug of a book; it’s the literary equivalent of being dragged into a conga line at a party, and it does this with such big-hearted, good-natured cheeriness that it is quite impossible to resist.” – Victoria, Tales From The Reading Room
“I think that Angela Carter is like what I imagine marzipan to be like, or maybe this particular sort of chocolate mint cake my father has: delicious and rich but you maybe wouldn’t want a massive lot of it at once.” – Jenny, Jenny’s Books
“The novel succeeds on multiple levels, and on a uncomplicated plane it sincerely argues for the recognition of simple joy under the long and often theatrical masks of seriousness and complexity.” – Leif, Leif and the Pages