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14th April
2010
written by Steph

In my first year of university, I took a humanities seminar called “The Monstrous Imagination”, which looked at monsters and the grotesque in literature throughout history, and how these reflected the mores of the time.  It was a lot of fun, and exposed me to the concept of the historical monster, reading things like The Malleus Maleficarum and Dante’s Inferno. We also read Angela Carter’s short story “The Lady of the House of Love”, which was Carter’s macabre interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. After reading it, we were meant to take a fairytale of our own and make it monstrous in a similar fashion.  That was my first exposure to Carter, and it definitely made a strong impression.  In my mind, Carter was a dark writer who enjoyed perverting the conventional, and whose writings were deeply sexual. This month, Claire over at Paperback Reader is hosting Angela Carter month, a month in which she encourages us to explore Carter’s writings and discuss her favourite author.  A few years ago, I picked up a copy of Wise Children at McKay’s, and Claire’s gentle encouragement proved to be the push I needed to finally read Carter’s homage to Shakespeare’s stage. Wise Children is a riotous and ribald novel, starring Dora and Nora Chance.  As the two sisters prepare to attend the birthday celebration of their father, Melchior Hazard, who is turning 100 (and has never officially recognized Dora and Nora as his daughters), Dora reflects on the fraught and frenetic past of the Hazard family (starting with Melchior’s parents, Euphemia and Ranulph), tracing the family’s story up until present day.  A stage family from the very beginning, we see how Dora and Nora’s life as dancers is shaped by both nature and nurture; show girls from the very start, they weather life’s ups and downs with good humour and a skip in their step. This is a novel that is raucous and bleeds vaudeville blood, but it also oozes quirky sentimentality too.  It’s about feeling comfortable in your own skin, holding your head high, making a family out of those who love you, regardless of any genetic obligation. I loved the eccentricity of Dora’s voice, a screwy old dame who dances to the beat of her own drummer.  For all the laughter and good times, there is a sadness the permeates the pages, as life marches unerringly forward, leaving people behind, as age makes musty, moth-eaten memories of us all. As if it even needs to be said, the writing is extremely strong in Wise Children.  Carter has a way of making her words sizzle and pop. She has a light touch here, is playful and whimsical, but still strides boldly into the topics that make her tick. There is a visceral smuttiness to Wise Children; after all, how does one talk about the parade of life without speaking of its genesis? Carter takes it another step further, making figurative inbreeding that often accompanies long-standing families an actual thing, exploring the tenuous relationships to their full extent.  Although I would not consider Wise Children to be as dark and grim as some of Carter’s other works (such as The Bloody Chamber), it is still Carter doing what she does best.  She doesn't shy away from exploring the things that make us uncomfortable, luxuriating in all their repulsive glory.  Her stories do not tiptoe or wear lace-trimmed kid gloves; they are unapologetically brash, just like Dora and Nora Chance. This was my first novel by Carter, and it was so much fun. I loved the fairytale atmosphere she imbued her story with, and yet for all its hazy dreaminess and outlandishness, it never felt forced or fake.  The Chance girls were larger than life but felt real; even if they didn’t exist, you kind of wish they did.  I was impressed by the strength of Carter’s writing, but I also enjoyed Wise Children as a story that simply entertained me.  Thanks again, to Claire for prompting me to finally read Carter in earnest.  I’ll certainly be back for more. Rating: 4 out of 5

17 Comments

  1. 04/14/2010

    I bought this one for a 2001 trip to London; didn’t read it. Unearthed it for a 2007 trip to London. Began it, didn’t finish it. I’ve only read one Carter, The Bloody Chamber, but that alone ensured I’d read anything else by her. I think I have four of hers on my shelves right now; maybe I can combine with my one book a day challenge for the rest of this month.

  2. 04/14/2010

    What a great review! This sounds like a very interesting read. Actually, having never read anything by Angela Carter, all of the books you mention sound interesting to me. I like the fact that you mention that these reads visceral yet whimsical and I am also drawn by the fact that the writing itself is wonderful. I also read Nymeth’s review of The Magic Toyshop this morning and was intrigued by her synopsis and review as well. Doing a quick search on her works, I find that she has a bunch of short story collections out there. I am sort of leaning towards trying something shorter first, and am thinking about grabbing a copy of Burning Your Boats, as it seems to encompass several different collections. It also contains The Bloody Chamber and The Lady of the House of Love. After reading so many positive things about her writing, I am really looking forward to sampling it!

  3. 04/14/2010

    Reading your review I kept thinking, this sounds SO Angela Carter. She’s been a favourite of mine for years, yet I have refrained from exploring her whole catalogue because I don’t want to run out of books of hers to read. What a pity she died so young.

  4. 04/15/2010

    @ Girl Detective: I think this one could be a contender for your 15-day challenge, although I will say that although it’s short I found the prose quite dense and didn’t read it as fast as I might have another book of similar length. But it’s really worthwhile, and I think you’d get a good deal out of it!
     
    @ zibilee: I have a copy of Burning Your Boats, but you know I’m not awesome with short story collections. But I’m working on that, and hopefully I’ll increase the amount of short fiction I read!
     
    @ Nymeth: Even though I really enjoyed the Carter I read at university, I never thought to seek her outside of the classroom… clearly those days are over! 😉
     
    @ Claire: Oh, I’m so glad you felt my review captured Carter’s spirit! Sometimes when I read a book that’s so great and complex the best I can do is try to pay homage to it in the way I write my own review!
    And I’ll definitely take up your suggestions and read BOTH The Magic Toyshop and Nights At the Circus in the future! 😉

  5. Steph, what a stunning review; your creative use of imagery and word order is worthy of Carter herself (I am sleepy, up past my bedtime, and can’t coherently voice how impressed I am by the exuberance of your review).

    Carter captures the bawdy of Shakespeare in Wise Children, which is a riotously funny and inventive read. You’re right too that she doesn’t shy away from the repulsive and unsavoury.

    If you are looking for a novel-length work that is similar to The Blood Chamber, of which you were so fond, then definitely read The Magic Toyshop that has many of the same elements. For a combination of the fairy-tale grotesque with the outlandish and theatrical of Wise Children, read Nights at the Circus.

  6. 04/14/2010

    Can I just say your college courses sound WAY more interesting than mine? I want a do-over. Maybe that way I’d have heard of Angela Carter before this month!

  7. 04/14/2010

    Where was “The Monstrous Imagination” when I was in college? Love this post. You and Claire are both moving me toward Angela Carter this month. Becoming near irresistible. Have never read a single thing by her. Sigh. But “visceral smuttiness” has me written all over it. 🙂

  8. […] Steph read her first Carter novel (having studied one of her short stories at university) Wise Children, which she describes as, “a novel that is raucous and bleeds vaudeville blood, but it also oozes quirky sentimentality too” (how is that for an exuberant description?! Worthy of Carter herself). […]

  9. Eva
    04/14/2010

    I really need to start reading Nights at the Circus already! 🙂

  10. 04/15/2010

    Claire has certainly gotten me interested in Carter!

  11. 04/15/2010

    @ softdrink: I was pretty lucky with the huge variety of courses I was offered as an undergrad. One of the benefits of going to Canada’s largest university, I guess!
     
    @ Frances: Oh, you simply must read Carter. You’ll love her! I think one of the greatest things about her is how she unabashedly owns female sexuality. She’s not afraid to portray women as sexual beings.
     
    @ Eva: Yes, you really do! Have you read any Carter in the past? I’m sure you’ll love her if you don’t already!
     
    @ Rebecca: Yes, that Claire is a huge literary mobilizer. First Persephone books, now Angela Carter. I look forward to what she picks next!

  12. 04/21/2010

    What a great review! I’ve had Carter on my TBR for a while, but I think you’re moving her up.

  13. 04/22/2010

    @ Jenny: Oh, I really think you’ll love Carter! She seems exactly your kind of author!

  14. 04/22/2010

    I’m still a little intimidated by her but your review is making me warm up to her more. I’ll be reading The Magic Toyshop and really eager about my reaction to it. Have no clue how I will take her! Exciting!

  15. 04/22/2010

    @ claire: No need to be intimidated, claire. I think you and Ms. Carter will get along just fine!

  16. Christine
    04/25/2010

    To all fellow Angela Carter fans here is a tribute I have made to her and her wonderful book, “Wise Children”
    Best wishes,
    Christine

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BP-60KPfyc

  17. […] Bibliofreak Steph and Tony Investigate! […]

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