Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Wise Children"--A Jolly Good Backstage Novel

When blurbing or reviewing Angela Carter's novel Wise Children, it seems the conventional thing to say is that it's "Shakespearean." The characters belong to a theatrical dynasty whose patriarch, Melchior Hazard, is Britain's most renowned classical actor, and the plot riffs off of Shakespearean themes. Ungrateful daughters, identical twins, mad young maidens distributing flowers, jealous spouses, near-miraculous reunions, etc., are all to be found here.

That's what the back cover of Wise Children told me to expect, at least. What I didn't expect was that it would also feel like a cross between One Hundred Years of Solitude and Noel Streatfeild's "Shoes" books. By which I mean, it's a magical-realist multi-generational saga, littered with twins and doublings; but British and humorous and stiff-upper-lip rather than Latin American and melancholic. (In what must be an intentional inversion, the taboo that leads to the downfall of the Buendía family is the salvation of the Hazard family.) Furthermore, like Streatfeild's books--which I read so eagerly as a theater-mad little girl--Wise Children is simply grimy with greasepaint and the atmosphere of the British theater entre les guerres. I wonder if it's intentional that both Wise Children and Ballet Shoes feature sisters who get their big breaks playing Peaseblossom and Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night's Dream? And while I do enjoy a good Shakespeare riff, the García Márquez/Streatfeild blend is what really makes this novel intriguing, daring and original.

Wise Children is obviously a great book for theater lovers. (If you understand just why it's so hilarious for an elderly dancing teacher to be named "Miss Worthington," you must read this novel at once.) But the very high quality of the writing means that it should appeal to anyone who likes a good yarn told by an engaging character. Dora Chance, the narrator of Wise Children, has one of the strongest and most distinctive voices of any literary character I've encountered in a long time. Dora is a 75-year-old woman who, in her youth, formed one-half of the song-and-dance team "The Lucky Chances" alongside her identical twin sister, Nora. The irony is that Dora and Nora haven't had the best luck in real life: they were born illegitimate and their father Melchior refuses to acknowledge them, their brief stay in Hollywood was a disaster, they witnessed the death of vaudeville. However, they're not ones to gripe or to pity themselves. Instead, Dora's narration is chatty, cheerful, Cockney-infused, and incredibly vivid.

I could literally hear Dora's voice and accent in my head as I read Wise Children. It made me realize that usually when I read British fiction, I don't hear it in a British accent--e.g. I think of Thomas Hardy's novel as "Tess of the Durr-burr-vils," not "Tess of the Duh-buh-vils." But after reading a couple of pages of Wise Children, Dora's voice so overpowered me that I felt tempted to drop my r's and to use quaint British expressions like "Sod it all." Or, to describe my feelings about Wise Children: "A smashing good read--the dog's bollocks!"

Image of vaudeville dance team "The Dolly Sisters" found here.

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