I’m not really sure what to say about this. It’s a book that sort of defies explanation, because every time I think back on it, I wonder if I thought the wrong thing all along, and actually, there’s a totally different interpretation to events. Only I thought that the whole way through the book. Is what’s happening really happening? Or is it all a strange metaphor? Or both? I can’t tell where the story ends and the riffs on Shakespeare begin, and which fake story is the real one. It’s baffling.
But it was enjoyably baffling for all that.
Wise Children is the story of a pair of twins, illegitimate daughters of a famous actor who refuses to acknowledge them, brought up by their “grandmother”, the employer of their dead mother, and legally acknowledged by their father’s twin brother. There are a lot of twins, and false parents, mistaken identities and similar Shakespearean confusions going on. It’s the memoir of one of the twins, starting in the present, on their 75th birthday, and rambling back to the beginning and forward again, through their whole, strange, unworldly life. Because that Shakespearean twist to everything gives the whole story a feeling of unreality, like it’s all a story acted out on stage, and even as you dig under that story, there’s another, equally unreal one going on underneath. Every layer is twins and incest and adultery and smiles, so you’re not really sure if anyone in the story has considered ever stepping off the stage for a second.
But because of all that, it did leave me with an unsatisfied feeling, like I’ve missed an awful lot, and if I’d only been that bit more attentive, I’d have seen what was really going on. But then again, perhaps if I had, what I’d see would be exactly the same again.
As a reading experience, it was thoroughly enjoyable. Dora Chance is an enjoyable narrator, and opens herself easily to the view of the reader. The author gives her an easy way with describing people, a flair for caricature. And everyone here is a caricature. But there’s a realness to them all too. They feel like people all the same. And you grow to like them, even some of the ones who don’t get names, only roles – the tenor, the piano player – but whose personality shines through nonetheless.
It’s a short book, but paced relatively slowly, and so you do feel like you get a reasonable amount of bulk, for all the flimsy paperback it is, without the slowness feeling like a drag. Dora Chance is an old woman, and won’t be hurried in telling her story than you very much, and so the pacing feels like a piece of character development, rather than a fact of the book itself.
I suppose the most baffling thing is how something that feels so superficial and ultimately silly – in the way that Shakespeare is incredibly silly, when you really think about it*, sometimes even when he’s trying to be serious – can, when you put it down at the end, feel like it’s said so much more than you noticed as you read it. I want to go back and read it all again to find it all, but I know when I do (and it’s a when, not an if), I’ll probably miss plenty then too.
It sounds like I’m unsatisfied, and I suppose I am, but honestly not in a bad way. It’s the good sort of mystery. The sort that drives you to go back and pick it over and find out more, and never be fully convinced you’ve got everything. I’ll definitely be reading Wise Children again, and it has made me want to seek out more Carter, and see if she’s always this baffling and strange. I hope so.
If I had one criticism – and shocker, I do – it’s that it feels very dated. Which is hardly anyone’s fault, but it was the one thing pushing against me getting totally immersed in the story – it felt a bit too alien, and too rooted in a period I wasn’t a part of and couldn’t connect to. But that’s… just a thing that happens. Some books do manage to be timeless – The Handmaid’s Tale manages to be strangely current even now – but it’s a specific thing, and there are many books I love now that will date themselves awkwardly one day.
But over all, it was a strange, intriguing read that made me want to read again, and seek out more Angela Carter in future.
*I am reminded a lot of Twelfth Night, which is a bloody stupid play indeed – possibly one of my least favourite of his – and of Love’s Labours Lost, which is pretty daft.