While I'm getting to grips with the joys of freelance writing and the slightly lesser joys of job applications, I've joined the lovely people at 26 Books, run by The Telegraph's Shane Richmond, as a blogger. You read 26 books in a year, and then you write about them. Easy! No, it turns out it's bloody hard. Not the reading, that's fine, but I'd forgotten how terrifying it is writing for new people on a new subject for the first time.
[Here's my first post, about the miraculous Angela Carter's final book, Wise Children.]
Carter is a delicious writer. I’ve only read two of her novels, six years apart, and I’m tempted to keep that distance so I don’t just guzzle down the rest and make myself sick. As it is, the first – the batty and beautiful Nights At The Circus – makes a theatrical diptych with this, Carter’s last novel, a bawdy, Bardish chronicle of a showbiz family tree which has the unnerving feeling of Ballet Shoes narrated by Barbara Windsor.
It’s narrated by Dora Chance, an ageing Brixtonite whose life since 12 has been spent furiously dancing up cash with her identical twin, Nora, and who has taken on the mantle of chronicling the sprawling history of the Hazard family, a cross between the Oliviers, Redgraves and Jaggers. The illegitimate children of legendary Shakespearean actor Sir Melchior Hazard (a ham of the highest order), the Chance sisters are born on the wrong side of the bedspread and the tracks. In a big hurrah for south of the river, they live in Brixton, in a bubble of glamour and grind with their adoptive Grandma – a naturist alcoholic whose iron-jawed nature has much in common with Giles’ indestructible Grandma. I love south London, and as it barely gets a footnote in most novels beyond “This is where crime happens”, this made me empathise with the Chances even more.
Kicking off with the Chances about to turn 75, they’re invited to their illustrious father’s 100th birthday party and here start the reminiscences. From their teens spent as dancing starlets the Lucky Chances to post-WWII mediocrity in nude revues, the girls exist in showbiz’s mucky shadow while their father climbs ever higher, spilling wives and children as he goes. High and low culture eventually meet and they cross paths for a Shakespearean revue which becomes a smash hit, leading to tangles with Hollywood, marriage and intense family rivalry.
But the plot is the least of the reasons to enjoy Wise Children: Carter wields language rather like the Caterpillar wields his peyoteish pipe in Alice in Wonderland, creating jewelled and jaded characters that make perfect sense in their chaotic world, while not always being filled out much beyond a shorthand name and vague outline. Nights at the Circus was liberally embellished with magical realism – it featured a 6′2″ “cockney Venus” with wings and a circus adventure through Russia – and while Wise Children cranks down the whimsy by a few notches, Carter’s witchy way with characters still illuminates every page, from an angelic, nameless tenor who steals Dora’s heart to Melchior’s abandoned first wife, nicknamed Wheelchair, who lives in the Chances’ house. Magic does exist in Wise Children, but it’s sleight of hand: cuckoo’s nest children, borrowed lovers and a liberal smattering of hoodwink.
Carter builds her own Shakespearean farce from his comedy building blocks: mistaken identity being a major one. Fathers and mothers are interchangeable: gin-soaked Grandma may be the Chances’ real mother, their makeshift father Peregrine is the actual father to Melchior’s ghastly twin daughters Saskia and Imogen, Dora swaps places with Nora so she can borrow her boyfriend. Those at the bottom of the social pile rise, cruel children are punished, and the dead rise again for a last-minute entrance. a high-octane finale and list of Dramatis Personae at the end, stock characters and wordplay, Old Nanny, dance teacher Mrs Worthington (ha!), Daisy Duck and the risky Chances and Hazards themselves. Nora and Dora shrug on their full names, Leonora and Floradora, as the moment arises It also touches on the parts Shakespeare delicately glosses over: incest and boyfriend-swapping among others, all dropped in with the same breezy insouciance as Dora’s ongoing battle with saucy spellings: “come (or do you spell it ‘cum’, I’m never sure)”.
Oh yes – and the best definition of a happy ending I’ve ever read:
“But, truthfully, these glorious pauses do, sometimes, occur in the discordant but complementary narratives of our lives and if you choose to stop the story there, at such a pause, and refuse to take it any further, then you can call it a happy ending.”
It’s tricky to pick out specific lines for particular praise as every phrase is woven into the next. Carter’s gutsy, gorgeous world is probably best summed up by its last: “What a joy it is to dance and sing!” Filled as it is with chapters to roll on the tongue and savour, this is also a bloody good read for those balefully enduring a booze-free January.