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Wise Children, By Angela Carter

A glittering life in the theatre

Angela Carter's Wise Children is narrated by Dora Chance, a sort of septuagenarian Ancient Mariner, dressed up in furs and kohl.

One half of the Chance twins – erstwhile chorus girls; illegitimate daughters of superannuated thesp Sir Melchior Hazard – Dora has us buttonholed in a Brixton boozer, with "a tale and a half to tell".

Her story spans a day, and a century. Dora's account of Melchior's raucous 100th birthday bash is interspersed with episodes from her family history and memories of a long career in showbiz: a bawdy music hall debut; an ill-advised Hollywood sojourn; encounters with George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin; a long decline into the margins of celebrity.

The plot is complex, and difficult to summarise, but suffice it to say there are bathetic twists and postmodern turns. The prose is a joy, replete with compressed aphorisms ("comedy is tragedy that happens to other people"), and inflated, grandiose similes ("Grandma looked like St Pancras Station, monumental, grimy, full of Gothic detail ...").

First published in 1991, the novel turned out to be the author's last. (She died the following year, at just 51.) While there are satirical aspects – the way Carter gleefully conflates high and low art suggests a desire to show up cultural snobbery – it is finally an affirmative and warm-hearted piece, with fewer hard edges than her previous work, and quite brilliant in every sense of the word.