(With a special shout out to Hedgepig, who gave me this book for my birthday, many years ago.)
Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children is a trippy, heady flight through seventy years and a masala of words. Carter’s heroine and her carbon copy sister (“By ourselves, neither of us was nothing much but put us together, people blinked.”) begin on the music hall circuit as flapper chorines, and survive the invention of the talkie, moves to New York, Hollywood, and back to London, all the way through to the takeover of daytime television.
Dora and Nora Chance (the “Lucky Chances”, naturally) are twins born into post- war London, on the wrong side of the theatrical tracks. Bastard children of a grand Shakespearean actor, Sir Melchior Hazard (few names are accidental in this book), Dora and Nora learn to dance to work their passage through a world that makes a great fuss of legitimacy, but likes to have less licit elements on call as well. He does classical theatre, they do vaudeville. He rejects them, but his adventuring, black sheep brother steps in as a beloved mentor to coach and defend them, and provide them with expensive perfume, paid for who knows how. Dora narrates, and you accompany her giddy passions, frantic hopes and pragmatic compromises.
Somewhere along the line Carter noticed that Shakespeare is a trickster who deals in deuces. The Shakespearean references come at micro (quotes worked into stream-of-consciousness passages so smoothly you could easily miss them), mezzanine (when the lives of characters take a turn for Hamlet or King Lear) and macro level (I am still trying to decide if the entire book is a kind of riff on Shakespeare’s love of seeing double).
This novel is about doubles, mirror images and covert echoes. Legitimate and bastard, high and low culture, Shakespeare and pantomime, glorious pasteboard illusion and eight-shows-a-week, blistered-feet grind. The London that is Covent Garden, and the one that is Brixton. It is also about forging a family for yourself, though it may not be one the world would recognise as such, and valuing the people who help you do that. Dora is a poet and a great heart, and utterly unsquashable. The way she celebrates her seventieth birthday is to have a glorious shag at a party on top of the fur coat belonging to her loathed legitimate counterpart, and you can’t get more hoydenish than that.