Twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance have lived an exciting life. The illegitimate and unwanted daughters of famous thespian Melchior Hazard, they followed in their performing father’s footsteps and became celebrated “song and dance” girls in their own right. As their father’s 100th birthday approaches, along with their own 75th birthday, Dora narrates the story of their life. This includes the story of their father and his twin brother, their various offspring and the madcap lifestyle that comes with living in infamy,with talent and little to reign in the compulsiveness and dysfunction that comes with both.
Angela Carter has long been on my radar for the fantastical elements her stories seem to contain. She appears to fearlessly tackle darker story lines and/or thread them with an ominously fanciful tone. And like her contemporaries Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, she has written a lot. I stand in awe of these ladies as they appear to eat, breathe and sleep writing (Carter sadly passed away in 1992, this being her last novel). All to my benefit thankfully. As for Carter, this is my first and while not disappointed it was not quite what I expected either.
This is a flashy, interesting read. The characters are larger than life as are a lot of the situations that arise. There is an enormous cast of characters, all related in some way or another to the Hazard family, be it through birth or marriage. Perhaps in keeping with our 75 year old narrator, the story seems to dither a bit, jumping here and there and there is a ludicrous feel; I kept thinking that some of the situations seemed so absurd that the old dear was maybe hamming it up. This is in part to the almost conversational tone of the book, as if Dora is sitting there chatting away with a cuppa in one hand and a biscuit in the other. In hindsight, it is more in keeping with a theatrical performance, the novel as a whole being some kind of homage to theatre in particular pantomime.
I was not quite savy enough to pick up on the Shakespearian nods either, never having studied the Bard in any great capacity. There are five acts and direct references to his plays (of which I was oblivious). Learning of this layer added some depth to a novel that comes off as a bit frothy, particularly as the end comes together to create a neat tie off to a bit of a jumbled mess of the middle. The big birthday celebration allows for some more grandiose developments such as people back from the dead, abandoned babies requiring carers and an icky geriatric chandelier-moving romp which would have been a tad sweet if there wasn’t a familial connection in there *blergh*.
Before tackling some more of Carter’s work, I am going to do more research into the author herself and what she hoped to bring to her writing as there seems to be a lot thematically that passed over my head. Wise Children seems to touch on a number of things around family, particularly legitimacy a sense of belonging even if that comes not from a direct blood line. In finding that this was written after Carter was diagnosed with what proved to be terminal cancer, there is also an emphasis on fun and happiness, a kind of legacy she wished to leave to her husband and son. All of this I could see after reading it, but while in the middle of it, I couldn’t see past the frivolity and seedy silliness of this family.
So, an interesting introduction to a highly lauded writer. I was left a little cold by the book itself, but after a bit of applied thought I realise it offered me more than just a few hours of easy reading entertainment. A solid 3 out of 5 and an expectation of a more enjoyable Carter read in the future.