Monday, 14 December 2015

Wise Children by Angela Carter


People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by my Sarah!

I trust my sister's choice in books, but I was a little startled when I picked up this book that it was about the theatre. I don't know why that should startle me, except that I scarred her once by exposing her to a bunch of actors, and she's seemed a little leery since. At the remove of fiction, though, this was apparently right up her alley, and I'm pleased to say that it was exactly to my taste as well.

I knew almost nothing about Angela Carter before I picked it up, butw as delighted to find her writing something so thoroughly Shakespearean/theatrical. It's about a pair of twins who made it "big" in English music hall theatre, but have connections to the legitimate theatre because they are the illegitimate children of the leading male Shakespearean actor of his generation.

Oh god, there are so many twins! Not only that, twins whose parentage is frequently in question. Carter is playing a great deal with legitimacy and illegitimacy here, both in the legal sense around birth, but also to do with the "legitimate" and "illegitimate" theatre - the grungy spotlights that are a far cry from those who set themselves up as the bearers of culture.

Except that this book subtly makes the point that from the point of view of "normal" society, there's less difference between the music halls and the august stages than you might think. An air of raffishness persists, and as far as love lives go, both groups are less bound by conventional morality. And it's all thoroughly enjoyable.

The main characters are octogenarian twins, invited to their father's 100th birthday party, even though he's never acknowledged them as his children. From their time on the music hall stages, they're fascinating older women - the story is told by Dora, of herself and her sister Nora.

Their father, of course, is a twin as well, and has fathered two other sets of twins (or has he? There's lots of questionable parentage in this one. As well as ungrateful children, ousting of parents from their homes, drownings of grief-crazed young women, mixed identities galore, falling in love with asses, and many other Shakespearean nods.)

The writing is what really makes this shine - Angela Carter can certainly turn a phrase, and the characters and world jump vividly to life under her pen. In sixty years of people falling in love, cheating, remarrying, betraying, disliking, liking, the myriad characters were always memorably distinct and entertaining.

Since this book is a comedy, at the end, all is restored. (Comedy not in the sense of being funny, although it is, but in the sense of Northrop Frye's elucidation of Shakespearean genre. ) I'm very happy Sarah recommended this book to me, and would happily recommend it to any other lovers of the theatre, or simply good prose and Shakespearean hijinks.

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