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Shadow Dance (Virago Modern Classics)Shadow Dance by Angela Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“She was a beautiful girl, a white and golden girl, like moonlight on daisies, a month ago. So he stared at her shattered beauty… ‘She is a burning child, a fiery bud’ said Honeybuzzard, before he knifed her.'”

This is a very strange story about a ghastly nymphet called Ghislaine whose beauty verges on the grotesque even before her face gets slashed to pieces by the equally beautiful and androgynous villain Honeybuzzard. I am beginning to see a common theme in Carter’s particular stance on the nature of feminine beauty in that she loves to concoct her characters as a delirious mix of sexual depravity in virginal garbs.

‘Shadow Dance’ is a complex novel where the sexuality of characters are always suspect. The medusa-like Ghislaine (even her name is a monstrosity that smacks of the absinthe-odoured Lautrec ladies) is presented as an insatiable young woman who is forever scarred after a violent sexual attack cruelly orchestrated by two men; Morris, a nondescript antique-dealer who beneath the thin gloss is basically a failure in life and his flamboyant and dangerous sidekick Honeybuzzard.

“In the flickering blue light, Honey’s long, pale hair and high-held, androgynous face was hard and fine and inhuman; Medusa, marble, terrible… She gaped up, baffled, wondering, like the Virgin in Florentine pictures meeting the beautiful, terrible Angel of the Annunciation.” 

The two men are very unlikely friends and partners in crime, however the thing drawing the two together is the very thing that makes them incompatible: total incongruity of character. Morris is the total opposite of Honeybuzzard. Where he is all shy and retiring, Honeybuzzard is all knives and sharp corners. Like the title suggests, there is a very subtle shadow dance that occurs between these two men, they are both too much of one thing and not enough of another and it is through this need that they come into close proximity and tolerate each others intolerable acts. Even more subtle is the sexual tension between the two and the sense of how they can never truly enact the forbidden sexual desire for one another because they are, in a symbolic sense, each other.

Honeybuzzard and Ghislaine were the most interesting characters and I find Carter is at her best when creating the most outrageous personalities. She really does shine as she makes the most incredible habits credible. Ghislaine’s magnificent entrance at the beginning of the novel and Carters exquisite description of her will stay with me for a long while. It was nice to see the initial workings of ‘The Passion of New Eve‘ in this, her first novel; as I think Ghislaine and Honeybuzzard may have been test versions of the Tristesse and Evelyn to come.

Carter is also a master of jerking sympathy out of her readership for the most absurd of reasons. As poisonous as Ghislaine is, we cannot help feeling horror and shock at her attack by the hands of Morris, who was the one who planted the demonic seed of thought into the impressionable mind of Honeybuzzard. In roundabout ways we can decide for ourselves who was more or less to blame for the events of that night and how the aftermath affects not just the victim, but many other innocent bystanders who have no more than a fleeting acquaintance with the main people involved.

The most amazing thing about ‘Shadow Dance’ has to be the detailed descriptions of various degrees of depravity, whether this be in the state of a house or a relationship. Things are always a little bit tainted in Carter’s world and that’s what gives this a very gothic flavour. Everything is in a certain stage of its’ own undoing and even those who think they have finally captured a rag of relative happiness soon have it cruelly torn from them.

I adore authors who are not afraid to put their characters through their paces, who are brutal and precise if the story demands it. Carter cares very much for her characters, which is why she is so careless with them. They are not wrapped in cotton and protected by events, they live them out for us and brings us ‘the taste of pennies’ on our tongue. It’s always a pleasure to read Carter, for she belongs in the rare gallery of women writers such as du Maurier, Atwood and Morrison, who boldly go where no others have been and eke out new, savage pastures for readers to lose themselves in. They bring with them their own brand of femininity, one that tries to cleanse itself of the barbie-coloured optimism, and allows us to glance at the depths of our forbidden selves for a few therapeutic minutes – at the overwhelming burden of our dark ‘life-giving’ gifts and what this means in its terrifying totality.

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