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