‘Shadow Dance’ by Angela Carter

shadow dance

Angela Carter’s Shadow Dance was the first novel published in her short, yet industrious, career as a writer. Having read a couple of her later works, such as  The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, I could definitely see, in Shadow Dance, the beginnings of the themes, images and motifs that would recur and hold a greater significance in her later works. Shadow Dance recounts the lives of a handful of people living in the dreary, heady poverty of the 1960s. Although the main characters may appear, at first glance, to be the once beautiful, now grotesquely disfigured, Ghislaine and the enigmatic, over-the-top Honeybuzzard, the events that take place are actually narrated by the rather dull, ordinary and frustratingly coward-like Morris.

The novel opens with the chance encounter of Ghislaine and Morris. Ghislaine was once a beautiful young woman, infamous amongst the men and their wives of this small tight-knit community for her sexually loose and deviant ways. She has just returned from hospital after a brutally violent attack – she was knifed in the face and the rumour is that Morris’ best-friend and ‘business’ accomplice, Honeybuzzard, is to blame; although Ghislaine officially reports the attack to be by a gang of unknown, faceless youths. Morris is undoubtedly uncomfortable with this confrontation, believeing that he shoulders some of the blame after his offhand remark to Honeybuzzard to ‘teach Ghislaine a lesson’:

‘Oh, the childish spite of it, blaming her for the disaster of their one time – she so beautiful but never to be enjoyed, was that her fault? At the time, it had seemed so. And therefore Honey, who was as heartless as she, should have her, to show her what heartlessness meant. ‘Revenge is a wild kind of justice…’. Who said that? But was it justice that she should go so scarred and her life ruined? He put his head in his hands and groaned out loud’.

Shadow Dance, Angela Carter, pg. 34

We witness the subsequent drama that unfolds through Morris’ tainted, guilt-ridden eyes. Honeybuzzard returns to town soon after Ghislaine. He represents the Sadist, masochistic male, a character that continually props up in many of Carter’s work – none more so than Bluebeard in The Bloody Chamber title story. This character, originally from one of Charles Perrault’s French folktales, is, in fact, mentioned directly by Honey’s new girlfriend, Emily. Morris stumbles across her in the locked study he has in the junk/auctioneer shop he shares with Honeybuzzard. She claims that she was curious to see if anything disturbing lay behind the door, like the dead wives of Bluebeard, as she doesn’t know that much about Honeybuzzard.

In some ways, Honeybuzzard does remind me of Bluebeard in The Bloody Chamber because of his extreme violence towards women and the enjoyment he receives from torturing others. However, he differs in many other ways. For example, he is obsessed with dressing up and masquerade. He constantly wears fake noses and Dracula teeth. It seems that we never get to see the true Honeybuzzard until the very end, and this ending – like most of Carter’s earlier works – is extremely disturbing.

What struck me most about this novel was not the relationship between Honeybuzzard and Ghislaine, though this is a very interesting one, but the relationship between Honey and Morris. At first glance they seem a most unlikely pair to be friends and business partners. Morris in his stuffy corduroys and buttoned-up shirts in the middle of a stiflingly hot summer; and Honeybuzzard with his long, beautiful, almost feminine golden locks and enigmatic appearance. But the more I read and the more I got totally sucked into the plot, the more I started to doubt whether these two characters are indeed separate. Morris seems to inhabit the daytime hours, whereas Honey controls the dark, sinister night. Could it be that these two characters are the differing, contradictive sides of one person? I think this is deliberately ambiguous and blurred by Carter to keep us, the reader, in a state of questioning. It brings to mind the ghastly stories we hear occasionally on the news of seemingly ordinary people committing obscene acts of violence. When we hear them we usually wonder what makes a person do such a thing? Perhaps Shadow Dance is trying to put to rest the stereotypical depictions of the female victim by exploring the motives, or reasons, behind why people (usually men) commit these crimes. The shift is most certainly on the men in this novel, rather than the females. Everything we read – all we hear and see – is internalised by Morris, the male protagonist.

This is one of the reasons why I love Angela Carter’s work so much. It forces us to confront stories we have heard time and time again – in folklore, news, the media – in new ways. It forces us to try and understand the darker side of human nature – a dark side that could reside in anyone, even the seemingly dull and ordinary Morris. And it allows the traditionally ‘female’ victim to finally be put to rest, which is particularly prevalent in Carter’s rehashing of old fairytales and folktales in The Bloody Chamber. I think if you are a fan of Carter’s work, Shadow Dance doesn’t disappoint.

From reading Angela Carter’s first novel and seeing the buds of her growing concerns in later novels, I think it will be fascinating to  attempt to read the rest of her collection of fiction in chronological order to truly see this progression.

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