James Wood

  • Shadow Dance by Angela Carter
    Virago, 182 pp, £9.99, September 1994, ISBN 1 85381 840 2
  • Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter edited by Lorna Sage
    Virago, 358 pp, £8.99, September 1994, ISBN 1 85381 760 0

Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance, is a bold, leathery, coarse book. It summarises thinly its author’s later adventures and preoccupations, as the chapter headings in a picaresque novel do its hero’s: Gothic entropy, sexual ambiguity, personality as masquerade, the theatre of theatre. It is a first wispy cloud in what would become a boiling sky; it casts a small shadow.

The novel is not remotely likeable, and, like a hated teacher, it shows no interest in being likeable. This confidence in the value of its varied punishments is its most striking attribute. It does not read like the first novel of a 25-year-old (it appeared in 1966); there is very little gaucherie or unsureness.

Shadow Dance tells the story of Morris, a failed painter and antique-collector, and his ruthless, fraudulent partner, Honeybuzzard. Honey, like the wicked uncle in Carter’s next novel The Magic Toyshop (1967), is more interested in puppets than in humans: he manipulates humans like toys, he likes to wear masks, false noses and vampiric teeth. He has a ‘flamboyant and ambiguous beauty’. One of his human toys is the beautiful Ghislaine, a former lover, whom he has attacked and horribly scarred. Her ruined beauty haunts Morris, who is in thrall to the charismatic Honey but who feels guilty about his association with him. The novel ends with Honey’s murder of Ghislaine, and Morris’s loyal decision not to betray his friend.

Already Carter’s language is rich and bright-buttoned. One marvels at the confidence with which she rolls up the old heavy carpet of detailed narration and dangles instead her own brighter mat: menacing fairytale. Often, Carter’s prose is brilliantly suggestive, at once playful and black: ‘May progressed slowly. The white lilacs in the churchyard where Honey said Ghislaine had been raped and hurt browned at the edges and reeked of halitosis and finally dropped down dead.’ This was Carter’s great gift – this stab of surrealism, this sharpness of detail. It is a Dickensian extravagance. In Shadow Dance, Morris imagines the mouth of a hated rival, imagines storming his ‘ivory castles’ and knocking out his teeth ‘so that they would fall out one morning as he chewed his good-morning toast and clatter, like eroded, blackened clinker, all across the family breakfast table.’ More brilliantly, Melanie in The Magic Toyshop sees Finn yawning, and glimpses ‘the ribbed red cathedral of his mouth and all the yellowed teeth like discoloured choirboys’.

One forgives a writer much who can write sentences like that. And there is much to forgive. The greatest weakness of Shadow Dance is its odour of meaninglessness. There is something here about the danger of living life as display, and the evil of collecting humans as things, of course. But this dissolves into the texture of the novel itself, which is intensely histrionic: ‘smiling her tremulous, shy, disingenuous smile and saying Halloo with the dying fall of an F. Scott Fitzgerald chick spinning giddily to hell’. Carter establishes her dirty atmospherics with superb swiftness and confidence – some extravagant and dangerous players, a seedy Gothic neighbourhood both real and set-like. But she seems not to know what to do with it. Most of her early novels expire in exotic spasms: her first ends with a murder, The Magic Toyshop with a house fire, Love (1971) with a suicide.

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