Angie's Reviews > Wise Children

Wise Children by Angela Carter
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's review
Jan 07, 2012

it was amazing
Read from December 18, 2011 to January 06, 2012

‘Hope for the best, expect the worst’.

This is the motto of Grandma Chance, the cheery Cockney who has brought up her two grand-daughters, Nora and our narrator Dora Chance (known professionally as the Lucky Chances, former stars of music hall, stage and as we learn at one time, on the silver screen).

Her words crop up throughout Dora’s story and prove wise advice to her two much loved girls. As the story unfolds the ‘girls’ are now 75 and are about to attend the 100th birthday party of their father, Sir Melchior Hazard, the finest Shakespearean actor of his day, and one who has never admitted openly to his parentage of the girls, so there is much unfinished business afoot.

Dora is an imaginative writer and she shares fully with us their outrageously bawdy family history (Melchior was the son of another lauded English stage actor whose origins we learn more about, a little like turning the pages of a Victorian photo album) and the fantastic voyage through life which she has taken with her beloved twin. Twins run in the family – Melchior’s brother Peregrine is another larger-than-life mentor to the girls throughout their lives and for me, was one of the most vivid characters in this novel. The girls work hard from an early age on the stages of theatres in London and the south of England. Their big break comes when they go to Hollywood as part of the cast for their father’s film version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the 1930s’. This, as in many other parts, made for colourful reading:

''the wood near Athens covered an entire stage and was so thickly art-directed it came up all black in the rushes, couldn’t see a thing, so they sprayed it in parts with silver paint…The concept of this wood was scaled to the size of fairy folk, so all was twice as large as life. Larger. Daisies big as your head and white as spooks, foxgloves as tall as the tower of Pisa that chimed like bells if shook. Gnarled, fissured tree-trunks; sprays of enormous leaves – oak, ash, thorn, like parasols, or glider planes, or awnings. Bindweed in streamers and conkers, deposited at intervals in heaps on the ground. Yes conkers. All spikes. And rolling around at random underfoot, or stuck on buds, or hanging in mid-air as if they’d just rolled off a wild rose or out of a cowslip, imitation dewdrops, that is, big faux pearls, suspended on threads. And clockwork birds, as well – thrushes, finches, sparrows, larks – that lifted up their wings and lowered their heads and sang out soprano, mezzo, contralto, joining in the fairy songs.

What I missed most was illusion. That wood near Athens was too, too solid for me. Peregrine, who specialised in magic tricks, loved it just because it was so concrete. ‘You always pull a live rabbit out of a hat,’ he said. But there wasn’t the merest whiff about of the kind of magic that comes when the theatre darkens, the bottom of the curtain glows, the punters settle down, you take a deep breath….none of the person-to-person magic we put together with spit and glue and willpower. This wood, this entire dream, in fact, was custom made and hand-built, it left nothing to the imagination.

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen –

And there they were, waiting in cages, snakes and hedgehogs, not to mention newts, worms, spiders, black beetles and snails, with snake handlers and hedgehog handlers ad lib at hand to keep them happy, waiting for their cue to scatter this way and that across the set as soon as the fairy chorus started up.

It was all too literal for me.

It took me donkey’s till I saw the point but saw the point I did, eventually, though not until the other day, when we were watching 'The Dream' again in Notting Hill, that time, a couple of batty old tarts with their eyes glued on their own ghosts. Then I understood the thing I’d never grasped back in those days, when I was young, before I lived in history. When I was young, I’d wanted to be ephemeral, I’d wanted the moment, to live in just the glorious moment, the rush of blood, the applause. Pluck the day. Eat the peach. Tomorrow never comes. But, oh yes, tomorrow does come all right, and when it does it lasts a bloody long time, I can tell you. But if you’ve put your past on celluloid, it keeps. You’ve stored it away, like jam, for winter. That kid came up and asked for our autographs. It made our day. ''

This is just one example of the rich prose and first person eccentricities which are prevalent in this wonderful story. I loved being party to the life story of these two sisters and the build up towards the amazing birthday party at the end of the book proves that their life is far from over, in fact there are new challenges ahead, which of course, ducky, is exactly how you would like to leave the Lucky Chances.

Carter’s gift was one from which any reader (and certainly any would-be writer) can gain an awful lot. Her words and turn of phrase are rich, humourous, gloriously shocking, flamboyant and insanely human. This was her last book before her untimely death. Carter revelled in the diverse, so I have read and this comes across tenfold. So far, everything I have read by her has knocked my socks off – this story is no exception.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Robert (new)

Robert Interesting review Angie, I will add Wise Children to my list of books to read.

Angie Yes, you should! It is full of much, rich wit (try saying that fast:)

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