Sunday, August 21, 2016
Frame's great first novel: Owls Do Cry
Very impressed, two-thirds in, with Janet Frame's debut novel, Owls Do Cry (1957) - yes it's a little eccentric, with a # of transitional chapters in italics built as strange stream-of-consciousness passages that seem a little out of date even in 1957 and yes it's, like so many debut novels, essentially a family saga that follows a stream of events in the life of the family without any other shaping principal but, that said, it's a tremendously powerful saga told on an intimate and personal level. We focus on the 4 children - clearly, fictional representations of the 4 Frame children that many will know from her 3-vol autobio and esp from the Campion film and TV series: here they're the eldest, Francie, who dies in a fire (Frame's actual older sister drowned); the brother, Toby, a sweet child but best w/ a # of problems including seizure disorder and some form of retardation and obsessive behavior (counting his money every night, for ex.), and the youngest sister, Chicks (aka Theresa), the only one married with a family and reasonably prosperous and moved away from home in S. New Zealand. (The 4th child is the stand-in for Frame, named Daphne, and living for several years in a mental hospital and w/ family visits forbidden - this will be the 4th section of the book I'm pretty sure). Frame's account of Toby as he tries to make a life for himself in their small town, awkwardly courts a young woman who is clearly "not into him" (as we'd say today, not then), a sad and bewildered young man, is a highlight; the next section is mostly made up of Chicks's diary, in which she expresses her social anxieties and aspirations (reminded me a little of Babbitt) - it's hard to believe she would actually keep such a detailed diary, and Frame pushes things a little to far to have Toby, on a visit, come across the diary and read it (first, she would have protected it more assiduously; 2nd, it seems from other evidence that he can barely read) - including passages in which she expresses shame and even loathing toward him. But whatever its faults this novel is emotionally powerful and stylistically challenging and in some ways original: the use of stream of consciousness much more personal and confessional than in Joyce or Faulkner, for ex. Pound said "make it new," and Frame has followed this dictate - it's fresh and surprising on every page.