I finally read an Angela Carter! Long as that took me, it actually wasn’t all that hard. I plunged in and did not let go and the book simply carried me to the end. I completely understand why I was nervous about reading my first book by Carter, even having finished it now. Had somebody told me what this book was going to be about, what it was going to be like.. I fear I might never have picked it up, thinking that it sounded the complete opposite of my taste in books. But if Angela Carter proves anything, it is that one cannot predict one’s taste by mere descriptions. It is the execution that defines the book, or in case of Wise Children anyway.
Wise Children is about the illegitimate twins Dora and Nora Chance and their interactions with their father’s family, the Hazards. This is a family of twins, legitimate and illegitimate. It is also a family of disclaimed, claimed, and false parentage, of transgressive sexual mores, of divorce and marriage, of adultery and hints of incest. Describing it like this, my reaction would be “it is a mess”, but I think that is exactly the point. Admittedly, it took me an embarrassing long time to understand, but Carter’s Wise Children can be read as a continuous nod to Shakespeare and his intricate and transgressive family dramas and comedies.
Dora Chance, the narrator of the story at 75, tells us about her current setting before diving into her childhood, youth, later years, and then returning to the day of their 75th birthday, which is also her father’s and his brother’s - who is claimed as their father in public – centenary.
Dora and her sister are a bit miffed by the way they have gone unacknowledged by their father. Born as illegitimate children, with a father who refuses to acknowledge them and a mother who is dead, they are raised by their adoptive grandmother. Dora and Nora quickly learn to make their own way for themselves, performing as dancing and singing girls – but always on the margins of respectability, never truly admitted into their father’s family side of true Shakespearean theatrics.
As we follow Dora’s narration, things quickly turn from the absurd to the outrageous, but it works. I cannot quite capture how marvelously Angela Carter manages to work with these absurdities, how humorous this book is – particularly its narrator with her humour and liveliness that constantly balances on the coarse but never really feels like it. I did love this book. And I cannot wait to read more by Carter, even if I think I agree with Jenny that I wouldn’t be able to read one of her books straight after this one, even if I am tempted to.
If you know me a little, perhaps the above attempt at a plot summary and the description of humour bordering on the coarse, might have given you a glimpse of why I said that this sounds like the complete opposite of what I like usually. Books that claim to be funny? They usually make me hesitate. But this one is. In a way that is inexplicably lively, joyous, optimistic even when the most dreadful things are happening. Dora is a great character, a great narrator, to evoke all these feelings.. Most of all, Angela Carter is a magician with words and prose, the way each sentence simply works. Yes, I admit, I am a little bit in love..
Another thing that stood out as completely-not-me-and-yet-I-loved-it? It was the way this book handles sexuality. It is rare that a book manages to describe sex, to evoke sexuality, and not make me cringe or feel complete and utter shame. But Angela Carter manages to describe it in a way that made me feel none of these things. Moreover, in Dora and Nora and all of their family, she seems to go completely against conventional sexual mores but in a way that never once bothered me, that was instead elusive-and-yet-explicit enough, normalising it in a manner that I have not encountered before. More than ever it made me realise how much female sexuality is usually shamed, or how that shame is reinforced perhaps not through the story itself but through the marketing of it as “erotic fiction for women” or whatever. It made me realise – I think perhaps for the first time – how it need not necessarily be so. Not that this is erotic fiction, I would say, yet it oozes sexuality in a way? It was sort of liberating to notice, really. I cannot quite explain it.
Can I also pinpoint the smallest drawback of this book? It is its complicated list of characters (which can, I later found out, be found at the end of the book). The complicated relationships these all have with each other daunter me a little at first, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to tell them all apart. However, it all comes together in the end, so it was more something that made me hesitate during the first half and then became quite familiar in the second.
More Angela Carter from now on? Yes please! What do you suggest should be my next read?