For all their luscious detail and baroque plot twists, the novels of Angela Carter feel as improvised as bedtime stories — for grown-ups. Though best known in America for her 1985 novel, Nights at the Circus — about a turn-of-the-century aerialist who just happens to be part swan — Carter, who lives in London, has published poetry, journalism, children’s books, short stories, a feminist critique of the Marquis de Sade, radio scripts, and nine not easily classifiable novels. In Wise Children she has created her most exuberant entertainment, a slapstick family chronicle filled to overflowing with shiftless fathers, scheming (or long-suffering) mothers, fractious siblings, and five-count ’em, five-sets of twins.
Dora and Nora Chance are the illegitimate daughters (”identical we may be, but symmetrical — never”) of Melchior Hazard, the century’s most celebrated Shakespearean actor. Born to a chambermaid in an actors’ boardinghouse at the start of World War I, the Chance sisters are raised by their corpulent ”Grandma” (actually, the landlady) and supported by their Uncle Peregrine, a ”bloody marvellous conjurer.” Smitten at an early age by the tawdry glamour of the music hall, Dora and Nora eventually enter show business as ”The Lucky Chances,” a song-and-dance team (”the lovely ephemera of the theatre, we’d rise and shine like birthday candles, then blow out”). For the next 50-odd years, as they travel throughout England and North America, they keep crossing paths with their illustrious father. But whenever they do, there’s an attendant disaster: His posh mansion burns to the ground, his movie collapses during production, his happy marriage ends melodramatically.
Now the Chance sisters are turning 75, and Sir Melchior — who has stubbornly refused to acknowledge paternity — is about to celebrate his centenary. On the day of her father’s huge, media-drenched birthday party, Dora reminisces about the interconnected lives of the Hazards and the Chances, speaking to the reader in a voice that’s alternately bawdy and sentimental, hilariously dotty and sharp as a dueling sword.
While there’s an obvious moral to this particular version of the human comedy (”it’s a wise child that knows its own father” — and a foolish father that refuses to love his own child), as usual with a Carter extravaganza, it’s not the meaning that’s such a treat, it’s the fiction itself. She’s a novelist in love with making make-believe, and no matter how implausible things become, her nerviness and wit, her abundance of invention, and the sheer richness of her prose make it all work gloriously. ”What a joy it is,” says Dora, ”to dance and sing!” In Wise Children Angela Carter sings and dances her clever heart out. A