BOOK REVIEW / White satin moons: Linda Grant on eggs that splutter in the early work of Angela Carter

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ANGELA CARTER's Shadow Dance (Virago, pounds 9.99) seems resolutely of its time, one of those first novels written on the dole in the early Sixties at a formica table by a spluttering espresso machine in the very moment that the England of torn oilcloth was being replaced by 'steel and plastic structures so light they had to be screwed into the ground to prevent them overbalancing at a touch'. There the young Angela sits observing, in the novel's very first words: 'The bar was a mock-up, a forgery, a fake; an ad-man's crazy dream of a Spanish patio, with crusty white walls (as if the publican had economically done them up in leftover sandwiches) on which hung unplayable musical intstruments and many bull-fight posters . . .'

It's the time between the beatniks and the mods. We meet Honeybuzzard, a premature, psychotic hippie, and his partner Maurice in the junk shop trade, on the look-out for what they've seen in the colour supplements. They have made one killing: a flower- decorated bidet sold to a giggling man from Detroit. Something is changing but it hasn't changed yet. They are living in a provincial city that is still unmistakably the pre-war world of its oldest inhabitants. You can smell the paraffin heating and the sour milk kept on the window ledges of houses without fridges and the taste of big, old brown pennies. Eggs splutter in their pans of lard and you feel the mild sun of an early Sixties summer warm your shoulders before you step into the outside yard's lavatory, dandelions growing in the cracks of the walls.

But 11 pages on, Maurice has left the bar where Carter has put him. He's aware that it is 'a remarkable and romantic night' with a 'low, white satin moon' and 'voluptuous shadows'. Parked cars seem like 'the abandoned shells of deep-sea creatures, Pearly Argonauts'. He hears an owl's hoot from a window, and then an answering hoot, but it's not what it seems; it's a wakeful child playing at being an owl. 'The child and the owl converse gravely together, without understanding but with diplomatic formality, like emissaries.' So already at 26 Carter has found the dreamland she will later chart while she struggles against her own instrincts to write a naturalistic novel of Sixties life.

Time is bending and Carter, like Maurice, moves 'questingly among the abandoned detritus of other people's lives for oddments, fragments, bits of this and that'. Horror takes hold. After Honeybuzzard has murdered a girl he has previously disfigured, his present girlfriend throws away his fate in one line: ' 'They will hang Honey or put him away', Emily said.' And so he lives on undiminished in all his monstrosity, more a creature of fairytale than Broadmoor.

Angela Carter's style was unmistakable from first to last but it's been hard to tell, for her early novels are only now being resurrected from publishing limbo. Shadow Dance, now reissued by Virago, has been unavailable since its first edition in 1966, and Virago has brought out with it a companion volume of critical essays on all her work (The Flesh and the Mirror, edited by Lorna Sage, Virago, pounds 8.99). Shadow Dance is part of what Marc O'Day calls the Bristol trilogy. These three novels, set in an anonymous provincial town (O'Day presumes it is Bristol, where she went to university), were published in alternation with her more well-known work such as The Magic Toyshop. They are neglected, unfamiliar. One assumes that, being (somewhat) naturalistic, they must be dated. Yet as O'Day points out, they deal with mutability, they lurk around the idea of the beast within.

O'Day's essay corrects the tendency to analyse Carter's work exclusively in terms of dream and magic, as if it could have been written at any period in history and had no social context beyond that of a feminist investigation of desire. O'Day argues that all the Bristol novels have social origins, that her imagination is rooted in that moment in the Sixties when junk stopped being junk and became first kitsch, then something economically durable, to be sold to the armies of gentrifiers swarming into Islington. 'In the Nineties,' he writes, 'we're so accustomed to endless revivals, to instituted nostalgia and pastiche, that we forget how surprising it was when it happened on a grand scale for the first time.'

When the last of the Bristol novels, Love, first published in 1971, was reissued in 1987, Carter appended an afterword in which she answered the question that readers ask and writers loathe: what happened to the characters? She turned one into a radical feminist separatist, another into an NUT activist, another is a television presenter who has recently joined the SDP. One broods alone in a New York penthouse, last seen in Britain as the subject of a Mapplethorpe portrait in the Sunday Times magazine. Carter may have mocked the conventions of social realism by gladly giving us so concrete an account of these wisps of her imagination but she had no doubt that she was writing out of a time, as well as out of time. Readers who flinch at magic realism may well find these early works more to their taste.

And oddly, we may find in the years to come that it is to Carter that we will turn to view the Sixties, rather than her then better-known contemporaries.

(Photograph omitted)