Fifteen-year-old Melanie tries on her absent mother’s wedding dress, wanders into the garden and tears the dress to shreds. The next day a telegram announces her parents’ death, and she and her younger siblings are packed off to their uncle’s (not actually magic) toy shop, complete with a strange puppet theatre, domineering uncle, mute wife and her filthy but fascinating brothers.
Because he’s the best, my husband started reading this to me when I was feeling ill the first day of our holiday. I gave a disclaimer; “Angela Carter’s books sometimes get weird, and she’s pretty feminist” but he went for it anyway.
He spent the first chapter going ‘what?’ and I spent it going ‘yes, that is what it is really like to be a teenage girl.’ Carter cleverly captures the imagination, curiosity, fear, innocence and longing of a teenage girl going through puberty and a kind of sexual awakening.
After the wedding dress scene, which errs into melodrama, the book continues down a strange, feverish vein with strange events, characters and ideas packed in. Orphaned children packed off to surprising relations is a common trope; and I think Carter consciously uses it as a construct to portray a teenage fantasy.
That Melanie doesn’t seem to care about her siblings, that she and her love interest never have sex despite opportunity and the general strangeness seem to add to this – the world is that of dreams not reality. The toy shop setting should be childish, but is distorted by the characters, desires and secrets within.
I love Carter’s rich use of language; the text is luscious with description and every scene she paints seems hyper-real; packed with colour and scent and sound. We really see things how Melanie sees them, and experience her heightened emotion along with her.
As such, it’s a clever exploration of a girl coming to terms with womanhood; not perhaps as feminist as I’d expect (she dreams only of being married, and this never changes) and the plot continues interestingly – but as it pulled further and further from reality I was left feeling distanced from it all, which only got worse toward the end of the book.
I’d recommend Carter’s The Bloody Chamber – but probably not this. Perhaps I am just too old?