Review – Wise Children by Angela Carter

I read my first Angela Carter novel last year, The Magic Toyshop, reviewed here and it was such an enjoyable reading experience I fully intended to read Wise Children soon afterwards…well, better late than never and what a wondrous ride it was.

Wise Children is narrated by Dora Chance, twin sister to Nora and illegitimate daughter of Melchior Hazard, the renowned Shakespearean actor.  It’s the twins’ 75th birthday and Dora takes this opportunity to recount the dramatic story of their lives, born on the wrong side of the tracks in South London and into a life of musical theatre as chorus girls (aka “hoofers”) which is but a faint copy of their natural father’s “legitimate” acting career.  However, fear ye not, that won’t deter the Chance sisters from treading the boards, living life to the full and ending up having a less complicated and perhaps more enriching life than the legitimate children of Melchior.

Wise Children has copious amounts of twins and this twin theme mirrors the themes of illegitimacy versus legitimacy (not just in terms of birth), upper class and lower class, illusion and reality.  However this is most certainly not a dull social treatise but an absolute powerhouse, rollercoaster ride of a tale with Dora very firmly at the helm.  I cannot begin to tell you how much I loved Dora, an old gel who likes to give the impression that she doesn’t  give a damn yet she takes in the invalid ex wife of Melchior who has  been abandoned by her upper class twin daughters.  Being upper class  is obviously not contingent upon being charitable and or/loyal.

At the outset I must admit to being rather befuddled by the huge array of characters in this tragi-comedy, but a quick glance at the Dramatis Personae will keep you right and let you sink into the story.   I would hope that this list of characters now appears at the front of the novel rather than at the back where I found it, rather frustratingly, when I had read the last page!  “Design faults” aside, Dora’s story has echoes of Shakespeare, Dante, Boccacio, Greek drama alongside the more low-brow allusions to music hall performers with their lewd jokes.  Actually there is probably not that much difference between the high and the low at all – just that the likes of Dora and co tell it as it is rather than couching their words in obtuse, metaphorical language. 

There is so much exhuberance and engagement with life in Wise Children and given that it was written after Angela Carter was diagnosed with cancer, I can’t help wondering if this is her song to life, her legacy for her young child, as the closing lines state “What a joy it is to dance and sing!”.  And what a joy it is to have read this madcap, life affirming novel – if I am blessed to live into my 70s, I certainly want to adopt some of Dora’s philosphy rather than slipping into grumpy old woman mode!

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  1. stujallen says:

    I ve yet to read carter and every time I read a review keep saying I must ,have night at circus on tbr pile and hope to at some point this year ,this book does seem to have a sense of some one looking at there life via a book ,all the best stu

  2. Jenny says:

    I didn’t know this was written after she was diagnosed with cancer! That makes me love it to a higher degree than previously. Yay for Angela Carter!

  3. admin says:

    Stu, you must rectify the Carterless situation asap!

    Jenny, I know that she died of lung cancer in 1992 and was at the time working on a sequel to Jane Eyre based on Adele, Mr Rochester’s ward. Such wonderful talent cut short. :(

  4. JoAnn says:

    I really need to read Angela Carter! Won a copy of her short story collection, Fireworks, during Claire’s (Paperback Reader) Angela Carter Month last year… don’t know what I’m waiting for.

  5. lovelytreez says:

    I don’t know either, JoAnn – go for it, she’s a fantastic writer.

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