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Wise Children, 1991
"It's a wise child who knows his own father" goes the old adage, and Dora Chance can point an unerring finger at hers. In this deliriously comic novel by the well-known British author Angela Carter, Dora rakes through her past with an irreverent and bawdy hand to tell how she and her twin sister Nora, the illegitimate daughters of a hammy Shakespearean actor named Melchior Hazard, made an effervescent career as chorus-girls in British musicals and had a rousing no-regrets time every step of the way. Now in their seventies, Dora and Nora live in South London ("Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks," Dora coos enthusiastically), retired from the stage but fully launched in a new star-turn as outrageous old ladies. Lovers of flashy clothes and false eyelashes laden with mascara, the two prance high-heeled through the novel, ready at any time to kick up their legs to dance and sing. "We can still lift a leg higher than your average dog," boasts the irrepressible Dora.
Although bubbling with indomitable joie de vivre, the twins have a lifelong thorn stuck in their round little heels: their famous matinée idol of a father refuses to acknowledge them and they pass officially as the (illegitimate, of course) daughters of his twin brother Peregrine. Peregrine, in turn, is the actual biological father of Melchior's legal twin daughters Saskia and Imogen. Nor are these the only sets of twins in this which-side-of-the-blanket-is-which family, which is as crammed with eccentrics as an average madhouse. Just to complicate matters further, some foundlings and ex-wives are taken in here and there, and by the time Dora gets around to her hilarious memoirs the extended Hazard-Chance theatrical clan has become an entanglement only she can unravel.
The guiding narrative thread is the Chance sisters' often below-the-belt foray into the nether regions of showbusiness. With undiminishing relish and enthusiasm, the song-and-dance girls rise to every occasion, be it a corny stage routine, a new sugar-daddy, or a switch of identity with an unwitting boyfriend. The sky's their limit, but they set their sights low just the way they like it. The only grey cloud in their tinselly heaven is Melchior's denial of paternity, but they worm their way into his life anyway and, in a memorable high-spot, finally participate in one of his Shakespearean performances.
This is a Hollywood movie-version of A Midsummer Night's Dream with a producer called Genghis Khan, and Angela Carter's description of the antics on the set and at the wrap-up party must be read to be believed. Rather less successful is her climactic 100th birthday celebration for Sir Melchior, which ends the novel and sees Dora and Nora finally recognized as their father's daughters; the manic tone begins to wear thin here and we're ready to take our leave of the ageing showgirls as they wend their way home in the wee hours, singing and dancing in the street.
© Wordreign, September 1999
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