Friday, August 19, 2016
Janet Frame's life and art in her debut novel, Owls Do Cry
Janet Frame's first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957), pretty closely follow the outlines of her sad, nearly tragic life - at least insofar as she portrayed her early life accurately in her autobiography and insofar as Jane Campion captured that in her film/TV series on Frame: Frame was born in the 1930s in New Zealand, in a large working-class family in a fairly remote part of the country, lived in pretty serious poverty throughout her childhood, in her 20s was diagnosed (incorrectly) with schizophrenia and underwent years of hospitalization and electro-shock treatment, against her will obviously, and on release became a successful writer - sometimes considered NZ's best writer and a perennial Nobel possibility (she never won). The novel has the strengths and weaknesses of many literary debut novels: a powerful narrative that barely disguises its autobiographical elements and a florid, anything goes style - lots of stream of consciousness, lots of echoes of Joyce and Faulkner, with some occasional odd passages and metaphors, which I'll try to remember for a future post. The novel benefits from slow, careful reading and absorption into her style - because that's really what it's about - the events, while powerful in and of themselves, are largely "episodic," that is, the novel has the shape of a life - one thing after another happening to the same person - but not the shape of a narrative: there's no plot per se (which is probably why in later life Frame just told it as it is in her 3-part memoir). Interesting, the first section of Owls Do Cry (a passage from The Tempest, btw) focuses on Francie, a stand-in for Frame's older sister, while the Frame character is marginal. Francie dies falling into a fire pit (Frame's sister died in by drowning, a powerful moment in the film and the memoir); after the death of Francie, Frame recounts the horrid experience of shock therapy - which the film, btw, largely ignored, so it will be interesting to see going forward how much we learn about Frame's mis-treatment; she says little about her own troubled childhood as a perennial misfit - again, that's somethings he later took up in her memoir. In this novel, perhaps the material was too raw and painful and she gets at it obliquely only.