I love Angela Carter's prose: the sentences dance together, perfectly matched, creating a sinuous harmony of prose that's almost poetry. Wise Children
is no different. In telling the story of the Misses Dora and Leonora Chance, the "Chance Sisters" whose rhythmically clicking heels have lighted up many a music hall stage, Ms. Carter has not spared any expense, choosing to spread the paint in loud, garish brushstrokes. For are they not the twin daughters (albeit born on the other side of the blanket) of the great Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard?
Dora tells the story-and does it in such a bawdy style reminiscent of the music hall that you get carried away. It is a wildly improbable story, full of clandestine affairs, terrible disasters and great revelations-yet somehow unreal, as though we are watching a burlesque play. The girls are bastards of the great Melchior, born during the first world war, abandoned by their mother and brought up by Grandma Chance and their father's twin brother Peregrine. Even though their father do not accept them publicly, their story is always entwined with the story of the Hazard family, as Melchior moves from the drama stage to Hollywood and back again, picking up three and discarding two wives in the process. He has twin daughters from his first wife and twin sons from his third, and they all interact in wildly improbable ways throughout this kaleidoscopic novel.
It would not make any sense to describe the plot, so I will not attempt it-even if I were able to do so! Suffice it to say that there are artifices and deceptions aplenty, and nothing is what it seems to be...rather like a Shakespear play... In fact, the spirit of the great bard, especially the bawdiness of his comedies, is present throughout the narrative. This novel could be Angela Carter's tribute to him. Also, the vulgar light of the music hall makes itself felt on each page.
This is show business, and after some time, we start asking ourselves: is anything for real? As Nora asks Dora towards the end-does their father really exist? Or is he a pasteboard creation of their imaginations?
The other persistent theme is that of twins. One active, one passive: one quiet, one sprightly: one good, one evil... Even the city of London, split by the river into "twins": the North, respectable and the South, vulgar. Diametrical opposites permanently linked together. The novel aptly ends with the arrival of a new set of twins.The question then arises: for such a many-layered story, why only three stars? Well...the book had a bit too much of vulgarity in it for me. Maybe Ms. Carter did it on purpose, but the constant references to semen (especially on one occasion, the presence of it on a young man's moustache after he has oral sex with another man) put me off. Also the numerous instances of incest didn't help. But I confess it is entirely a matter of personal taste.
So the verdict: a well-written, fast-paced literary novel, but perhaps not everybody's cup of tea.