Angela Carter

"Wise Children"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 5, 2008)

"When I was young, I'd wanted to be ephemeral…to live in just the glorious moment…..  Pluck the day.  Eat the peach.  Tomorrow never comes, but, oh yes, tomorrow does come all right, and when it comes it lasts a bloody long time, I can tell you.  But if you've put your past on celluloid, it keeps.  You've stored it away, like jam, for the winter."

Originally published in 1991 and newly released in paperback by Farrar Straus Giroux, this final novel by Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) is a riotous, non-stop farce, as filled with twists, turns, twins, and travails as anything Shakespeare ever dreamed of.  Told by Dora Chance at the age of seventy-five, the novel flashes back to the wildly iconoclastic childhood she shared with her twin sister Nora.  "Chance by name.  Chance by nature.  We were not planned," Dora comments, explaining why they were unacknowledged and ignored by their father Melchior Hazard, the most famous Shakespearean actor of his day, a member of a theatrical family which performed all over the world.  ("The Hazards belonged to everyone," she declares.  "They were a national treasure.") 

Though their father may have been a "national treasure," he was also a self-centered and irresponsible hedonist, and Nora and Dora considered the doting Peregrine Hazard, Melchior's twin brother, their true "father."  Brought up by their "Grandma" Chance, a "naturist" who claimed to be descended from the Booth family of actors, the twins were surrounded by a bizarre assortment of "relatives," the result of their father's several marriages, including additional sets of twins who also adopted show business careers and who are described in unforgettably vibrant terms. 

As Dora describes her sexual coming-of-age, along with that of Nora, in bawdy and unapologetic language, she simultaneously describes their entry into show business as a song-and-dance team, a career that led to Hollywood.  When the market for their song-and-dance talents died, the market for their other charms, sometimes celebrated in the nude, remained lively.

As Dora's reminiscences continue at a manic pace--always exuberant, confident, and full of high emotion--the family's passion and love for life in all its variety become the real story here.  "Nobody could say that the Chance girls were going gently into that good night," she remarks, an attitude that the entire family embraces.  With vibrant dialogue, the novel resembles an off-the-wall play, full of non-stop action, entrances, exits, asides, and even a Dramatis Personae, which the reader needs to keep track of all the characters and their relationships.  The changing of partners and the game of "musical beds" keep the romantic aspect of the novel front and center, even as the family's dramatic contributions, some of them much more significant than others, are celebrated.

Dora's story races headlong toward the climax—the 100th birthday celebration of Melchior Hazard's life, when the twins are in their mid-seventies—and the final fifty pages of the novel are as slapstick, ironic, and full of surprises as any comedy ever written.  Eventually, the mysteries of their lives and the unanswered questions are resolved, not that Dora cares much.  At the age of seventy-five, she believes that "A mother is always a mother, since a mother is a biological fact, whilst a father is a movable feast."  Life is to be lived, without wasting a moment ("You can't fool a sperm"), and if the reader has a hard time keeping up with the high-octane action in this novel (and this reader did), then the reader needs to shape up and get with Dora's program.  One must look, not on the bright side, but at reality. Ultimately, Carter tells us, through Dora, "Comedy is tragedy that happens to OTHER people." 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 21


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About the Author:

Angela CarterAngela (Stalker) Carter was born in 1940 in Eastbourne, Sussex, where her mother had gone to escape the bombing of London. Her mother, Olive Stalker (née Farthing), was from a mining district in Yorkshire, and her father, Hugh Alexander Stalker, was a journalist from Scotland. She grew up in Yorkshire with her maternal grandmother and later rejoined her mother as a teenager. She married Paul Carter when she was twenty and moved with him to Bristol where she studied English at the University of Bristol. She began her literary career after graduating.

Angela Carter is one of the most important and widely studied late-twentieth-century British authors. Her relatively early death from cancer in 1992 came when she was at the height of her career and shortly after she had completed one of her best novels, Wise Children.

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