Song of sur­vival

Janet Frame’s first novel is a mod­ernist mas­ter­piece, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

JANET Frame’s first full-length work of fic­tion, Owls Do Cry, is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing and daz­zling pre­lude to her long and suc­cess­ful ca­reer. She was to write in sev­eral modes, pub­lish­ing po­ems, short sto­ries, fables and vol­umes of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, as well as other nov­els of var­ied de­grees of for­mal com­plex­ity, but Owls Do Cry re­mains unique in her oeu­vre. It has the fresh­ness and fierce­ness of a min­gled cry of joy and pain. Its evo­ca­tion of child­hood re­calls Blake’s Songs of In­no­cence and of Ex­pe­ri­ence, as well as the oth­er­worldly Shake­spearean lyric of her ti­tle and epi­graph, but her han­dling of her dark ma­te­rial is wholly orig­i­nal.

Al­though the story of the Withers fam­ily is sombre, in­deed tragic, what re­mains in the reader’s mind is the glory and in­ten­sity of the lan­guage, the height­ened im­agery, the bright­ness of an early world. She trans­forms the real (and at times un­com­fort­ably iden­ti­fi­able) New Zealand provin­cial sea­side town of Oa­maru into a myth­i­cal and mag­i­cal Waimaru, where places, events and char­ac­ters are seen with the sharp re­mem­ber­ing eye of re­deem­ing love. This novel, which boldly con­fronts ill­ness, phys­i­cal and men­tal disability, age­ing, and vi­o­lent and sud­den death, has a buoy­ancy of cre­ativ­ity and bright­ness. Some of its char­ac­ters en­counter de­feat, but it is a song of sur­vival.

Owls Do Cry was first pub­lished, to much ac­claim, in 1957 by Pegasus Press in New Zealand, and gained Frame an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion

May 31-June 1, 2014 when it ap­peared in 1960 in the US and 1961 in the UK. Some con­tem­po­rary crit­ics at home saw this ac­count of the life of the town and of the Withers fam­ily — the par­ents Bob and Amy, and their chil­dren Fran­cie, Toby, Daphne and Chicks — as a satire on the mono­chrome, mono­cul­tural, im­pov­er­ished but ma­te­ri­al­is­tic so­ci­ety of post­war New Zealand, strug­gling slowly to­wards af­flu­ence. And it is true that Frame does make fun of the habits and opin­ions of the towns­folk while de­ploy­ing de­scrip­tions of ma­te­rial ob­jects to sin­gu­lar ef­fect, par­tic­u­larly in later pas­sages about Chicks’ mar­ried life.

In ear­lier sec­tions, we learn much of fam­ily and neigh­bour­hood folk­lore and dreams — the vis­its of the tooth fairy ‘‘with a prom­ise of six­pence’’, the small sil­ver tin of wed­ding cake to be put un­der the pil­low, the ado­les­cent long­ing to train to be an opera singer, the bribe of a new bi­cy­cle to ride ‘‘in colours, red and gold and black’’, the false hopes placed in beauty aids (Wis­te­ria Peach Bloom, Glo­ria Haven) — but the over­all im­pres­sion is not of mock­ery but of won­der, a child­like won­der at the of­ten in­com­pre­hen­si­ble odd­i­ties of the world.

Frame re­mem­bers ex­actly how schoolchil- dren think, how they mis­un­der­stand and un­der­stand and make free as­so­ci­a­tions (the ‘‘nurse shark’’ is a won­der­ful flight of fancy), but not all her prose is po­etic: an un­ex­pected ev­ery­day throw­away phrase such as ‘‘He was to have his ton­sils out, he said, and ev­ery­one felt en­vi­ous’’ takes one back, wholly con­vinc­ingly, to a school­boy mind­set. She sur­prises, and she rings true. There is com­edy as well as pathos.

The novel, which cov­ers 20 years in his­toric time, is, of course, now valu­able as a so­cial doc­u­ment, and read­ers (in­clud­ing over­seas read­ers like my­self) who re­mem­ber the pe­riod that Frame is de­scrib­ing will recog­nise many ref­er­ences from their own past: the acid drops and aniseed balls and licorice all­sorts, the hoarded Easter eggs smelling of straw and card­board, the sparse and sad Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions, the laven­der soap and bath salts, the moth­ers at school func­tions redo­lent of ‘‘tal­cum and stored fur’’, the first de­fi­ant pair of slacks, the names of for­got­ten dances, and ‘‘the milk-bar cow­boy, the teddy-boy, hang­ing around the door and putting money in the nick­elodeon’’.

But it is not prin­ci­pally for its com­pelling re­al­ism of de­tail or as a pe­riod piece that we now value this book. It is not a con­ven­tional novel but a mod­ernist mas­ter­piece, bear­ing wit­ness to Frame’s wide read­ing (Wil­liam Faulkner, Vir­ginia Woolf, James Joyce, Frank Sarge­son, Kather­ine Mans­field) and to her con­fi­dence in in­sist­ing on her own idio­syn­cratic punc­tu­a­tion,

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.