Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
234 pages. $21. "Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people," notes Dora Chance, the irrepressible narrator of "Wise Children," Angela Carter's exuberant new novel about a British theatrical dynasty.
Indeed, the events that overtake the intertwined lives of the eccentric Hazard and Chance families are not things one normally laughs at: murder, jealousy, infidelity, illegitimacy and incest. But this is a tale that's all in its telling, and since chatty, witty, earthy Dora's doing the telling, it smacks much more of the music hall than of Greek tragedy.
That's only fitting, too, because Dora and her identical twin sister, Nora, are aged hoofers who, at 75, "can still lift a leg higher than your average dog, if called for." Once they were the "Lucky Chances," who began pounding the boards as young girls and who grew up to be the toast of pre-war London and to dance with the Prince of Wales.
Theater's in their blood. They're the illegitimate, unacknowledged daughters of the legendary actor Sir Melchior Hazard and a maid, "poor Kitty," who died at their birth. Brought up in Brixton by Kitty's landlady, Grandma Chance, and taken under the wing of Melchior's larger-than-life twin brother, Peregrine, they've mostly watched the perambulations of Melchior, his three wives and his four legitimate offspring -- two more sets of twins, entertainers all -- from a safe distance. But perhaps not safe enough.
After all, the Lucky Chances were on hand for the Twelfth Night Costume Ball at Melchior's manor house, which went up in flames thanks in no small part to an errant cigar, Dora and a waiter who thought she was Nora. The Chances also were in Hollywood to play Peaseblossom and Mustardseed in the even more disastrous filming of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," during which Melchior discarded Wife No. 1, Lady Atalanta, for Wife No. 2, Delia Delaney, nee Daisy Duck.
Now, decades later, on April 23, they've been invited to the televised celebration of Sir Melchior's 100th birthday. It's also Dora and Nora's birthday -- and Shakespeare's. Not surprisingly, the debacle-denouement that ensues is worthy of several Shakespearean comedies, involving as it does a host of revelations and reconciliations concerning fathers, daughters, mistaken paternities and several long-lost and more recently lost persons.
Dora confesses that she got her way with words from Hollywood screenwriter Irish O'Flaherty. But let's give Ms. Carter ("Nights at the Circus," "Saints and Strangers") credit, too. Her Dora is a most memorable raconteur, and "Wise Children" a splendid comic novel.