Wise Children by Angela Carter
Why? My very good friend (since primary school!) Heather gave me this book for my birthday along with some hilarious pencils.
Wise Children is set in the world of theatre and showbiz so it is fitting that reading the book is more like catching a show than settling into a novel. Nora and Dora, twin sisters and illegitimate daughters of Melchoir Hazard, recount the story of their lives. Dora is our narrator – or compere – and she tells us these stories from the distant perspective of the twins’ 75th birthday. Their lives, even at 75, are a riot of intense characters and theatrical plot twists. Much of the story centers around their relationship (or lack thereof) with their father, as well as his extended family. The ‘legitimate’ offspring of Melchoir Hazard seem to fare much better than the Chance sisters, Nora and Dora, but Dora’s re-telling shows much of the family success about as thick as greasepaint, hiding some pretty shady characters and proclivities underneath. The story and their lives flash past, crossing and recrossing the line between reality and stage show. Wise Children is a thrill to read and an absolute masterclass in storytelling.
Mythos by Stephen Fry
Why? Went to Oxford to watch the Mind Comedy Gala & stopped in at Blackwells, Mythos caught my eye.
Mythos is a modern digest of the Greek myths, including all the ones you’ve definitely heard before, as well as a bunch of others that are less well-known, but equally ridiculous. Stephen Fry has done all of the hard-work selecting, curating and updating the stories so it’s an absolute breeze to read. I’ll be honest, I have tried to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is a major source for the Greek myths, but I did not get very far. Now I find the reason I struggled with Ovid, is because, unlike Fry, he has not allowed the gods to refer to each other as “bro” or “dude” or “my homie” which honestly makes it all far more readable. Unfortunately Fry’s sweep of modernisation only covers language, rather than culture, more specifically rape cutlure, which is pretty prolific in Ancient Greek myth. It is certainly interesting to read these stories now, given that the Greek Myths are our cultural ancestors and still have a huge impact on how we view ourselves and society today. In fact, part of the reason why I picked the book was out of a feeling of cultural ineptitude: if you didn’t learn about the Greek Myths at boarding school, how else are you supposed to become Prime Minister? Turns out, all you have to know to become PM is that Zeus had a lot of sex with mortal and immortal women, most of which was non-consensual. Voila, one of our foundational stories about power!
If you are prepared to overlook the various power inequalities between men and women, the myths are fascinating and bonkers. You may know already that Zeus gives birth to Athena through his head, but did you know that she got there because Zeus ate her mum, Metis, when she was in the form of a fly – and she just stays there in his brain offering him wisdom? Did you know that Athena is not the only baby that Zeus gestates? When one of his lovers is dying of disease on a funeral pyre (this trauma is also caused by Zeus, but we agreed to overlook that…), he saves her unborn child by cutting out of her womb and placing it inside his thigh! No wonder Dionysus has a drinking problem when he grows up.
Actually reading the Greek myths (particularly through this modernised edition) goes some way to demystifying the stories. I mean, they are still largely bonkers, but they become bonkers stories that you know, rather than cultural relics paraded by a minority who went to private school.
Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal
Why? My wonderful friend Abi gave me this book as a birthday gift saying it was the best thing she’d read all year.
Unmarriageable is Pride and Prejudice but set in Pakistan around the year 2000, which is literally how it is described on the cover (“Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan”). And that is exactly what it is, a reinterpretation, along with some pretty overt references/active discussions of the OG Pride and Prejudice – set in Hampshire probably. Now I am a Jane Austen fan, I appreciate that not everyone has been converted to this camp but pack your tent and hike with me for the time being. My admiration for Jane and her works is precisely why this book is delightful and also cringey. If you’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, its core very much resembles romance and its brilliance lies in Austen’s incisive observation of character and social interaction. Unmarriageable has the same wonderful array of characters, well-observed heroines, villains and bores, transported to a small town in Pakistan. It’s refreshing to see the classic story transformed into a new culture and I would love to see more of this. Austen gets too much of a bad rep for presenting life in her novels exactly as life was like for her (and for most middle class women at the time) so her stories deserve to be transported and updated to what life is like for women in different places and times.
However, Unmarriageable doesn’t quite stop at being a lovely reinterpretation, Kamal unfortunately seems to feel an absolutely unnecessary pressure to make constant reference to the original P&P within the story. This is when Unmarriageable is at its most cringey. Okay, we get that this is an homage to P&P, so it feels a bit weird that the main character, Alys Binat (Elizabeth Bennet, get it…?), also loves P&P and talks about it all the time. She even compares herself to Elizabeth and compares what is going on in ‘her’ life – her life that is a story replicating the plot of P&P – TO P&P. I guess it was supposed to be sophisticated metafiction, but to me it felt awkward and icky, undermining the whole premise of the book and ramming home the message “BY THE WAY THIS IS LIKE THE FAMOUS STORY PRIDE AND PREJUDICE!!!!!!” to readers who are likely already Austen fans and also not idiots.